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The antipasti course offers taleggio cheese, apples and walnuts.

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Dining with strangers

Multicourse, family-style dinners offered by Scenic City chefs are gaining popularity with local diners, and I've jumped wholeheartedly on that bandwagon. My first experience was at Signal Mountain's Hummingbird Pastaria, which hosts its communal Tavolata dinners the last Monday of each month. While there's no exact English translation, "tavolata" is basically Italian for "a merry table of friends."

Upon entering the cozy Italian eatery, guests choose their seats at a table set for about 20 diners. Some people come alone or as a couple, and others bring a few friends. Couples can sit next to or across from each other, but are asked to avoid leaving open seats so other parties won't have to split up.

"It's exciting and fun, and you end up around people you wouldn't normally come in contact with," says Patrick Halloran, Hummingbird co-owner and chef.

In addition to introducing people to new dining companions, Hummingbird's set five-course meals also expose diners to different kinds of dishes they may not have been tempted to order for themselves off the menu. Halloran changes the menu for Tavolata each time. Ingredients correspond with the current season, he says.

The meals are a deal at $20 per person, with the option of adding a flight of paired wines for $15 per person.

Impressed with my first Tavolata several months ago, I decided to go again in August. That night, our antipasti course consisted of aged taleggio — a soft, mild Italian cheese with a slight fruity tang — complemented by apple slices and walnuts and served with house-made bread. For the primo course, Halloran served flatbread pizza topped with seasonal summer squash, corn and ricotta cheese, followed by a dish of zucchini noodles fresh from Signal Mountain Farm and topped with perfectly grilled Gulf shrimp, basil and pine nuts. The main course featured roasted Springer Mountain Farms chicken, seasoned with lemon pepper and thyme and served with a green bean risotto — which left little room for the final dish, a peach- and mascarpone cheese-filled cream puff.

The couple sitting across from me and my husband, Signal Mountain residents Tim Cummins and Jennifer Gardner Cummins, said it was their first time experiencing Tavolata at Hummingbird, as they had been told the events were already full the last three months they had attempted to make reservations.

"I think this is one of the best-kept secrets in Chattanooga," Tim Cummins says. "It's a wonderfully unique experience."

Among other local restaurants offering communal dining experiences is Main Street Meats, where I attended its first, and so far only, such dinner this summer. A slightly different take, each of the four courses prepared by Chef Erik Neal was paired with a seasonal beer from Nashville's Yee-Haw Brewery. Surrounded by jovial strangers that included young and old, longtime residents and tourists, I savored dishes that included what was perhaps the juiciest, tastiest chicken I've ever had, roasted with Yee-Haw brew using the Big Green Egg that was still smoking on the sidewalk outside the Southside restaurant.

A bit farther down Main Street, Alleia offers its "La Familia" multicourse communal dinners the last Monday and Tuesday of the month. Accommodating up to 55 guests, the menu for each of the four-course dinners is announced the day of the event, and dishes are centered on seasonal items, says Alleia's Connor Cox. Though comprising basically the same courses as at Hummingbird — antipasti, primo, secondi and dolce — guests are offered a choice when it comes to each. The more selections you make, the higher the set price you pay.

Alleia's dinners are also extremely popular. Cox says they typically sell out soon after they are announced through Instagift.com. To be added to the list to receive announcements, call Alleia at 423-305-6990 or visit the restaurant's website at alleiarestaurant.com.

The Scenic City Supper Club, founded by Easy Bistro and Main Street Meats owners Erik and Amanda Neil, expands upon the idea of seasonal selections served in a family-style setting. The events, which are held each season in different locations — such as this summer's dinner at the Homestead at Cloudland Station — feature guest chefs from restaurants throughout the region. For information on upcoming events, visit easybistro.com/scenic-city.

Cleveland's Bald Headed Bistro also hosts intimate, seasonally inspired Supper Club dinners for up to 40 guests. Reserve your spots at the restaurant's website at baldheadedbistro.com/products/supper-club.

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