If I spy a booth and I’m shown to any other table, I’ll protest. I may, in fact, leave. I don’t want to watch the chefs at work from the counter. I don’t want to sit in a curtained-off private dining area. I want the booth.
There’s something seductive, alluring and exclusive about the architecture of a booth. To be within one is a comfort. It’s cocooning. At the same time, it stimulates notions of adventure and event. One has the sense of being on a train, making its way across state lines, or being embroiled in drama in the third reel of a Hitchcock thriller. Can there be a more dynamic design for a dining room than that of the classic Formica-clad American diner? It has all the visual patina of travelling, without any of the rigmarole, but plenty of French toast and strangely moreish piss-weak coffee.
When Balthazar opened in London recently you couldn’t hear Keith McNally’s waiters read out the daily specials over the sound of Twitter-fixated restaurant critics sharpening their knives, working out how to strike the perfect insouciant chord of disinterest, loathing, superiority and sophistication while having to admit that actually, from the steak tartare to the incredible rye and dark ale pain de seigle, it’s a f––king phenomenal restaurant. Me? I love it. And the best table at Balthazar? One of the booths. Which is why I never go to Balthazar with any more than a party of four. Anything more, won’t fit.
David Collins may have created one of London’s most perfect restaurant interiors with Bob Bob Ricard. Every table is a booth and the decor is cross-Continent Orient Express gay kitsch on crystal meth. I’ve always enjoyed the chicken kiev, but really I go for the booths. Then there are the sunken and the elevated hidden ones at LMNT in Hackney, where the playful nature of the structure comes to the fore: booth dining is a little like throwing a sheet over the kitchen table as a child, and hiding underneath it. It’s a universe of your own.
There are bad booths that feel like naughty steps: the window ones at Dalston Superstore are great, but the makeshift, precarious, stool-high ones further back in the bar have zero comfort factor. Then there are booths at certain cheapskate Italian cafés in Soho with shared, flimsy backs, meaning that if the diner behind you leans back, you feel invaded. Unacceptable.
I love starched-linen, velvet-posh booths, like the banquettes at Number One in Edinburgh (anything that requires you to climb inside is still, I would argue, a booth). The red leather ones at the Monkey Bar in New York City are similarly inviting too – they are the quintessential classic Manhattan supper experience; the kind of booth that you’d struggle to leave after a three-martini lunch, so you order a fourth and consider staying put for an early dinner.
More than the white tablecloth covered booths of the world, I love the wipe clean arrangements at Coffee Shop in Union Square and the booths of the world’s dive bars, like the long line of stark, Edward Hopper wooden ones in Catch on Kingsland Road, which imply nefarious, clandestine activity. When a bar is filled with booths, you half expect the room to soundtracked by the tap, tap, tap of a stripper’s heels and not much else.
Perhaps my favourite booths anywhere are in New York. I like the bright, emerald green ones at Peels on the Bowery, but I prefer the dimly red-lit ones at the Subway Inn opposite the uptown Bloomingdales, where during the day I like to watch the secretly unemployed tread water from nine to five. At night my favourite regular may stagger in, vomit into her handbag, snap it shut and then order herself another whisky sour. Once you have your booth, everything in the room becomes theatre.