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Hidden seating

Located in the heart of West Hollywood, the year-old O-Bar is, in many ways, the quintessential see-and-be-seen kind of restaurant.  There are elegant agate stone chandeliers, votive candles bouncing light off the curved walls, and a garden featuring stone sculptures, pools, and fountains (it's "over the top gorgeous," according to one online reviewer). Servers and guests both look like they should be in pictures, which many indeed are.

Yet the trend at O-Bar, and many other new fine-dining restaurants, is for guests to see, but not be seen. They clamor for the "cabana seating," as it's called at O-Bar: five square booths seating six to eight that are wrapped in cocoons of gauzy fabric, and fronted by a curtain that they can close at their discretion—meaning one can see out, but not in. The booths don't command a fee, and landing one is akin to scoring tickets to a hot premier.

"They're the most asked-about tables in the restaurant," says owner/designer Michael Berman, who adds that O-Bar's $2.5 million in first-year sales were thanks in large part to the cabanas. "Guests have to call well in advance if they want one."

Despite its ultra-trendy location, O-Bar is hardly unique—at least in one respect. It's one of a growing number of high-end restaurants that offer some type of "cocoon" dining: semi-private tables swathed in tents, curtains, or shrouds. Whether they're offered for no charge, as part of a prix fixe, or at a substantial cost, the cocoon tables are the hip, flexible equivalent of private banquet spaces, operators say, without the added dining room real estate or the operational headaches. Operators and designers alike say the cocoons strike the right balance between satisfying the guests' desire to be out amidst people, and providing them with a haven from the ever-increasing distractions of the modern world.

"In this day and age of 24-hour news, it's hard to escape all the noise," says designer Bob Puccini, who worked tented tables into the design at new restaurant Six in San Diego's Hotel Solamar. "But instead of closing people off entirely, these set-ups give people a sense of what's going on around them."

Others speak of how such tables, often staffed by a dedicated server, take service to the next level, and are natural magnets for large parties celebrating special occasions—groups drawn to both the idea of having their own space, yet still being part of the energy of the dining room.

No matter what the advantages, however, eating behind the curtain is an idea whose time has clearly come. Cocoon dining, in some shape or other, is featured at several high-profile new eateries, ranging from RM and Fleur de Lys in Las Vegas, to Mie N Yu in Washington, D.C., to Todd English's Olives chain, to New York concepts Spice Market, Casa La Femme North, Ono, and Duvet, the bed-themed latter featuring seven "private bedrooms"—curtained-off spaces for up to 10 that include nightstands, couches, and TVs, as well as 8-ft. x 8-ft. beds.

If there's one reason why guests are going in for this idea now, say operators, it seems to be the desire to attain some solitude in a world where cell phones, pagers, and laptops make that increasingly difficult.

"We live in a society where somebody's always looking over your shoulder," says Anastasios Hairatidis, owner of Casa La Femme North. "In the tented tables, you can be private, yet still feel like you're part of the main dining room."

The tented spaces were a staple for years at Casa La Femme, the downtown Manhattan precursor to Hairatidis' newest venture, where guests kicked their shoes off, sat on cushions, and ate on the floor. When the operators moved uptown, they brought the curtains-and-cushions concept with them, and built 10 tables shrouded in tents. The $55 prix fixe those tables require doesn't scare guests away, says Hairatidis; in fact, just the opposite is true. "They're much, much harder to get than the regular tables," he says.

Such spaces also seem to fill a voyeuristic desire to see but not be seen, say operators, like a dining-out equivalent of tinted limo windows. Designers see such tables as a more inviting, less costly alternative for guests to boardroom-style private rooms, and something of a backlash to the noisy "barns," as one described the high-ceilinged caverns that dominated fine-dining in the recent past.

"The trend used to be the big, loud warehouse," says San Francisco designer Cass Calder Smith, who designed the new RM. "Now, people just want to go out and talk with friends. They don't want to be bumped into or sat on."

Others say the spaces, furnished with amenities such as leather couches, dimmer switches, and video games, take the notion of pampering the guest to another level. Many have a dedicated server for the table, who sometimes has to be acknowledged by the guest in order to enter the pod.

Hubert Keller had extreme comfort in mind for the semi-private spaces at his recently opened Fleur de Lys at the Mandalay Bay in Vegas, a $5 million spinoff of his famed San Francisco namesake restaurant. The free-of-charge cabanas are enclosed in sheer curtains that extend to the 30-ft. ceilings, with fiber-optic lights shooting through for full artistic effect. Guests can open the front flap if they desire, or remain shut off from the rest of the room.

"It's your own tiny little dining room that offers a higher level of comfort," Keller says. "It's the ultimate in being pampered."

It can be the ultimate in markup, too. While most of these operators see their cocooned tables as an amenity—something that adds to the overall cache and exclusivity of the restaurant—others consider them a profit center in their own right, and charge a separate fee for their use.

At the $6 million Duvet, a 20,000-sq.-ft. restaurant and club that was shooting for the A-list when it opened recently, the bedrooms go a step further than the VIP rooms the operators feel have grown commonplace among New York's elite eateries. They provide dedicated servers, plasma televisions, and even slippers to guests for a fee that owner Sabina Belkin says is "pricey" (she won't say how pricey). "Over the last few years, it seems everyone's added a VIP room," she believes. "People want more privacy and more attention."

Even if it's not a bedroom, these semi-private spaces are very much in demand by large groups, operators say, whether it's for business or pleasure. Calder Smith designed the cocoons at RM with Vegas's convention business in mind, knowing they'd be a draw for those who might not want a private room, but still want privacy. Berman says much of O-Bar's popularity is due to establishing itself as a special-occasion place—thanks to the cabanas and the square tables he says are ideal for communal interaction.

Yet some don't see the trend extending beyond the restaurants with $30 entrees and multi-million dollar designs. Michael Smith, owner and chef at the upscale 40 Sardines in Kansas City, says one restaurant in his area tried tented tables—and failed miserably.

"I think it's a very cool concept, but we just don't have the critical mass of people here to make it work," he says. "As a result, chefs don't spend much on design.

And those who do offer cocoon dining speak of unique operational challenges. Servers at Casa La Femme North must learn proper cocoon protocol, which involves getting the nod from the guest before entering the tent. "It's a little more difficult for the server," says Hairatidis. "They have to be a bit more tactful."

There are also liquor-license restrictions, which state guests can't keep the curtains completely closed, and fire-code issues (many states require some sort of fire-treatment so the tents don't end up in flames), not to mention laundering needs that go beyond the norm. While eating in bed is certainly novel, it means changing the sheets at Duvet every time the (would-be) table turns. O-Bar operators are thankful to have a dry cleaner with a quick turnaround right next door. "We find food stains in odd places," says Berman.

And some lament not being able to control certain behavior going on behind the curtains, and the difficulty of turning tented tables over in a timely fashion, often when guests order just appetizers and drinks. Others say the exclusivity of the cocoon tables, while certainly a premium for those who secure them, can cause "table envy" in those who don't.

Yet for many, their biggest problem is running low on cocoon space for guests. In fact, it's the backbone of the $3 million design at Mie N Yu in Washington, D.C., where guests can choose to eat at tables set inside a Moroccan tent, or in a one-table cage that hangs between the first and second floors, and is accessed by a separate staircase.

"Customers memorize the numbers of these tables, and ask for them by number," says GM Oren Molovinsky. "The only downside is that we don't have enough of them."

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