Welcome to Actually, a safe space for us to share our deeply held but likely unpopular opinions about food and drinks.
The Chair has been around for decades, but it was in the post-recession period, around 2010, that it became ubiquitous: its arching metal back wrapping just barely forward enough to intrude on your hips, the nearly flat seat inviting you to join it, coldly and bracingly, like Ursula inviting you into her underwater lair. The naked metal paired well with the Edison bulbs and exposed rafters of the era. As raw wood and vintage-style painting on brick took over décor, everything had to look perfectly minimalist. And the chair, usually in unpainted metal, completed that look.
Unfortunately, it didn’t complete the experience. Because I don’t have to touch the bare lightbulbs and there’s no danger of a splinter from a ceiling beam, those were of little consequence. But those chairs, they caused me plenty of pain. As a woman of ample size, I thought, as they first started spreading like the wildfire of mild annoyance into restaurants around the country, that I must just be too fat for these chairs. But as I silently suffered through another dinner in one of these low-level torture devices, my rail-thin friend Bill could no longer keep quiet on the horrors of The Chair. From his rant, I realized that everyone found these chairs to be fundamentally terrible: they’re cold, they’re hard, and they just don’t seem to be designed to fit a human body (and certainly not a large one).
To be fair, choosing restaurant seating is a tougher decision to make than you might imagine: chairs are expensive, they tend to fall apart, restaurants need tons of them, and they need to match the look and feel of the restaurant. The Chair managed to find a niche: cheap versions of the original French model were plentiful, they stacked, they had no fabric to stain or rip, and no wood to warp or twist. They seemed to slide into various restaurant looks fairly easily.
Many years before The Chair became so widespread, the restaurants I worked in used to hold three-hour long tastings of the new menu each quarter. By the end of the meal, I felt cramped, crooked, achy. That’s because the banquettes are designed for one-hour meals, my boss explained. To keep the tables turning, they had to make sure people wouldn’t be comfortable for too long—a time period (and bench angle) that varied from restaurant to restaurant. Certain chairs and benches indicated how long the restaurateur expected the meal to take. Thus, I now assume that restaurateurs who furnish their spot with The Chair must simply not want me to sit down at all—they are uncomfortable from minute one.
The Chair is cheap—but at what cost? Sometimes it might be the cost of customers like me avoiding the restaurant, other times it might be the cost of staying for dessert or drinks. And any easy answer to its fitting the décor has long been lost to the overwhelming sameness with which it marks a restaurant.
Restaurants have tried to find a way around that sameness. In the years since The Chair first took over as restaurants’ seating of choice, it’s gone through a few iterations: first, painted versions of it matched every Instagram-friendly color scheme and quirky patterned wall paper. Then restaurants bought the stool version of it, a much less-bad version. But the worst was yet to come: nothing is less comfortable than the bar-height version of The Chair, a low-backed version that comes with all the disadvantages of the original, plus has nothing to lean back on and nowhere to put your feet.
It makes me wonder if these restaurateurs ever sat an hour in their customer's seat; I can't imagine that the message they're hoping to send is "We're unoriginal AND we don't care about your comfort." For now, all we can do is hope that the era of the minimalist trend ends soon and we can return to the opulent days of overstuffed banquettes, leather bar stools, and those wooden chairs that come with the butt groove already sanded into them.