The Story Behind Restaurant Booth Seating

Restaurant seating has varied throughout history. At one time shared communal tables were the norm, and later some restaurants introduced private dining rooms. But restaurants, as we know them, were born in 18th-century Europe. This was when dining moved from tables shared with the host or with strangers, to individual tables. It was during America’s Revolutionary era when taverns and coffee houses offered customers “boxes” similar to opera house boxes where people could meet and talk without drawing a lot of attention to their liaison. Boxes consisted of regular tables and chairs partitioned off on three sides by thin walls that stood about 1.20-meters high. This way the dining room was still an open space but customers had more privacy. When seated, the diners could not be seen by other customers. To add more privacy, some restaurants placed their boxes against a wall and hung a curtain across the entrance to the box. This way the box was completely cut off from view. Boxes were the forerunners of booth seating.

Restaurant Booths Took Time to Catch On

Some people were suspicious of box seating. They wondered what people could be doing in that private space. And was it moral? Comfortable booth seating offered a place for lovers to meet, for conspirators to plot, and for secret deals to be made out of view. Before World War One, there were even municipal ordinances passed in some cities outlawing box seating. They ruled that it was unlawful to “construct any screen, booth, stall, or other obstruction to the public view in any restaurant.” In 1914 Boston, booths were associated with prostitution and outlawed in any place serving food and liquor. In Olympia WA, curtained booths were declared “unhealthy”. And in Aberdeen, South Dakota, some saw restaurant booth seating as a threat to the morals of the town’s youths. Generally, this type of seating was more acceptable in establishments that didn’t serve alcohol. 

Strange Rules and Regulations about Booth Seating

Some of the laws implemented were a little ridiculous. In the name of modesty, one customer could sit at a booth or a party of 6 could be seated at a booth but nothing in between. In another city,  each restaurant booth had to have its own light that had to be turned on whenever the booth was occupied. In many places, the height of booth walls was limited. In some cities, municipal laws prohibited curtained booths so the restaurateurs removed the curtains but made the booths more intimate by raising the height of the partition walls. Much of the fuss over the morality of restaurant booths hinged on the height of the backrests or walls. But as time moved on there was no escaping the fact that customers loved booth seating!

Booth Seating Dominates the Restaurant Worlds

Restaurant booth seating gained acceptance in the early 20th-century. Booths were a more sophisticated version of the original boxes. The first booths had higher backs than we are used to seeing in booth seating today. And at first, booths were still walls surrounding regular chairs and tables. By the 1920s, booths were so popular that any restaurant that wanted to succeed had to offer some form of booth seating. Old laws were canceled, and soon restaurants began to advertise that they offered the best booths. The restaurant advertisements used bold phrases like “cozy booths”, and “private alcoves”. or “intimate booths”. These private seating areas became extremely popular in the 1920s. And they had quite a risque reputation. What was happening behind those curtains? Booths became more than just partition walls around tables and chairs. Now the seats were attached to the walls, which became the booth backrests.

Restaurant Booth Diversity

By the 1930s restaurant furniture suppliers were offering a range of different booth styles, shapes, and colors. Some eateries that dated back to pre-WWI still offered booths with curtains and a buzzer for summoning the server. They included chrome, faux leather, and wooden options. Despite the increased diversity in booth seating and the public’s acceptance of restaurant booths, many places still worried about the height of the backrests and whether they offered too much privacy.  

Booth Seating Today

Although restaurant booth seating may have had a rather risque beginning, today they are one of the most popular forms of restaurant seating. Booths have stood the test of time. They are no longer associated with mafia meetings, illicit affairs, or secret dealings. Instead, booths are the seating of choice for families, friends, and large groups who want to sit together and feel comfortable in their own space.

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