A good dinner companion is one thing. But a good dinner companion who keeps his/her cool at a family-style table, amongst strangers? Now, that is a keeper. Here are some places you can take these unusually well-adjusted dates.
Next to Franklin's, The Salt Lick is probably the most famous BBQ joint in town, thanks to a cameo on Top Chef: Texas. But unlike Franklin's, there's not an hours-long wait. Its crowd is mitigated by the fact that it's a bit of a drive to get there, but here in Texas, we believe that some things (like tender, melt-in-your-mouth brisket) are worth extraneous diesel fuel.
Casa De Luz is a self-contained, magical little world of wellness, with for-rent yoga and massage spaces, a bookstore, and a macrobiotic cafeteria. There's a set menu here every day with one flat price (usually $10-$15), and no waiters to tip -- you just bus your (family-style) table at the end. Go for the Sunday morning brunch, where a typical spread includes piping hot corn muffins, pumpkin buckwheat pancakes, and a little bowl of savory black beans.
Communal eating and drinking is the order of the day at Doc's MotorWorks, which feels like it was carved out of an old mechanic's shop. Tall tables and several TV's populate the interior, and damned if I haven't wanted to become an avid sports fan every time I've gone.
Aster's technically doesn't offer family-style seating, but the food here is definitely family style, with wide sheets of sour injera bread laid down on your table, along with large plates of stewed and meats and vegetables that everyone eats with their hands. It's a scene I find oddly romantic -- I guess because you can only eat that way with true friends, whom you'll love no matter what sauces end up on their cheeks.
Family-style boozin': The Butterfly Bar feels like a little bit like how I envision Salinger's hermit lair, with chairs and lamps made for studying, and a wide bar made for drinking until the wee hours. The tables here are almost all picnic tables, ensuring that you make some friends -- friends that might later challenge you to a ping pong game, which is also how I like to imagine Salinger spending his days.
With his Bourdain-approved Odd Duck food trailer, Chef Bryce Gilmore caught the farm-to-table wave just as it was cresting, and the wild success of that helped launch Barley Swine -- the cozy brick n' mortar version. Barley Swine's ever-changing menu is almost totally dictated by what Gilmore and his punk rock pastry chef, Kyle McKinney, find at the farmer's market, and both gentlemen have admirable imaginations. Try McKinney's Hefeweizen donuts for proof, and don't be greedy -- share a bite with your tablemates.
A rustic, outdoor-only spot that specializes in small, expertly prepared Hill Country fare, the twinkly lights make it Date Night-appropriate -- and the long, stranger-filled picnic tables are an effective field test for your date's social skills.
A sweet and petite restaurant that a culinary-pedigreed couple (him from TRIO, she from Jeffrey's) opened up earlier in 2012, Lenoir probably seats 30 people, max. And that's just the way they like it: Each dish on their prix fixe menu is so lovingly crafted and tasty, like the roasted antelope -- so tender it'll bring a tear to your eye.
Large, round family-style tables that make full use of the lazy Susan: Asia Cafe serves huge entrees meant for sharing, like the spicy, dear-God-what-did-they-season-this-with? Teppan Black Pepper Beef.