Ban the Banquette
by Terrence Doyle
In theory, banquette seating is wonderful. You meet up with a bunch of friends at your favorite restaurant for a boozy brunch or a celebratory dinner, and you pack yourselves cozily into an L- or U-shaped bench upholstered with one supple fabric or another — Leather? Brushed cotton? Velvet? — to talk shit about that weirdo cousin who keeps trying to involve you in a multilevel marketing scheme on Facebook. The couch-like seating, most commonly seen nestled against walls and enveloping groups of gossipers, seems like the ideal response to the wide array of bad restaurant chairs. Because banquettes are typically designed to ensure that every diner at the table can easily interact with one another — while inside an intimate cocoon away from the hustle and bustle of the restaurant — no one misses out, and everyone can engage in the shit-talking. Encouraging and facilitating these kinds of hyper-social gatherings is no doubt a worthy purpose, but banquette seating isn’t without its faults either — and those faults can outweigh the restaurant designer’s good intentions.
Most notably, banquettes, especially the L- or U-shaped versions, are often inaccessible to wheelchair users and people with other disabilities. In these instances — which make up a not insignificant number of restaurant banquettes — the portion of the table that does not abut any part of the bench is generally meant to be where servers approach the seated party to discuss the menu, take down orders, and drop off food. It’s not meant to be where a diner using a wheelchair can sit. Even if logistics can be shuffled around to allow a wheelchair user to post up on the outside edge of a banquette, most banquette tables are too high for wheelchair users, and many lack any real storage for canes, crutches, or walkers. Plainly put, banquette seating was not designed with wheelchair users or people with other disabilities in mind, and no last-minute maneuvering can change that. (Restaurants have a long history of ignoring the Americans with Disabilities Act, so this isn’t exactly surprising, though it’s certainly depressing.)
Peneliope Richards, an Afro-Panamanian writer with cerebral palsy who lives in New York and recently wrote for Eater about accessibility in restaurants, says that banquettes and booths both “may create the feeling of being in the way since we usually sit facing the booth as waitstaff and other customers attempt to fit past us to get to tables or restrooms.” And, Richards notes, eateries that use banquettes and booths as their seating style may be unintentionally excluding people with disabilities from their experience. “For example,” Richards says, “if a crew of six people — including three wheelchair users — come to a restaurant like this, there’s a high chance they’ll be eating at separate tables or not being accommodated at all.”
The inability to accommodate wheelchair users isn’t the only accessibility issue created by banquette seating, of course. I’ve spent years with my older brother, who has cerebral palsy and is visually impaired, as he’s struggled to navigate unnecessarily tight spaces. To slide into a booth or banquette, he must contort his body in ways that are uncomfortable and sometimes painful. Banquette seating presents a legitimately dangerous situation for him, so each time we go to a restaurant, we request to be seated at a standalone table — preferably not a high-top, which is also terrible — with movable chairs. For countless people with disabilities, banquettes are untenable.
And, for many, banquettes can be claustrophobic. If you are the unfortunate soul who ends up seated in the middle of a big group, it can be overwhelmingly difficult to get up to go to the bathroom, step outside for a breath of fresh air, or simply enjoy a moment free from knocking knees and elbows and thus messing up the entire table’s vibe. This can be even harder for people with larger body types or different ability statuses. No one wants to be the person who has to ask four, five, or however many people to disrupt their meal while they awkwardly scoot off the plush restaurant couch and shuffle toward the bathroom, only to do it all over again when they return minutes later. For the anxious among us, sitting on the inside of a booth can be tantamount to standing in front of the class in one’s underwear. But in this scenario, it’s more of a waking nightmare.
The allure of the banquette is obvious — having a sense of intimacy while still being engulfed by a given restaurant’s atmosphere is exciting! — but its many hindrances nullify its appeal. Groups have been sitting around ordinary tables in ordinary chairs since time immemorial without feeling as though they’re somehow missing out on something — and without excluding entire groups of people. Banquettes are terrible; it’s time to get rid of them.
Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston. He understands if you hold that against him.