Mugshot: why a communal table is the new cafe must-have

The communal table at Stagger Lee's.
The communal table at Stagger Lee's. Photo: Anu Kumar

Stagger Lee's in Fitzroy has got one, with a view onto Brunswick Street; at Brunswick's Wide Open Road it sits in the middle of the space, surrounded by cosy booth seating; one of Sydney's originals is at Bill's in Darlinghurst; and Bread & Circus in Alexandria offers several in raw timber ranged through its light and airy space.

After great coffee, it's a cafe's most attractive quality: a low communal table, where you can settle down with a laptop and a long black in a space that is both intensely social and pleasantly private.

The communal table has helped make Australia's third-wave cafes great public spaces: only the most social of cafe-goers could face sharing a four-seater with a stranger, but a big communal makes it OK to drink coffee alone.

Among my favourites is the low table at Reuben Hills. Tucked down the back, near a garage door opening onto a lane, it's one of the coolest cafe tables in Sydney.

Sometimes you find yourself perched on a stool at a high table with your legs dangling. That doesn't encourage lingering. Seven Seeds in Carlton is almost all high communal tables - a quirk that, for me, detracts from an otherwise great place.

Paul Kelly of Sydney interior architects Paul Kelly Design says: ''It's based on the experience you want people to have. So high tables are generally near the counter or the service area for people who are in a hurry'' - those who throw down a shot and move on.

''The low communal table is for people who want to take their time - spread out the paper, have a couple of coffees.''

Kelly was on the jury of the recent Australian Interior Design Awards; Melbourne's Figureground Architecture won in the hospitality section for their work for Industry Beans in Fitzroy.

Industry Beans stood out for the fact it was different. ''Figureground applied high-end architectural principles to the design using cheap materials,'' says Kelly. ''It was a little bit out of the box, with materials not necessarily fit for purpose,'' such as cut-up pallets and industrial shelving.

The design mixes high tables along the wall for perchers and long, low tables for lingerers. There's also an area under a pergola with tables for two that is more intimate. Industry Beans has all the seating bases covered.

And Kelly's favourite? ''Pablo & Rusty's in Longueville (Lane Cove). I like to sit at the communal table, have a couple of coffees and smash down a sandwich.''