The New Halls
Out of the whole panoply of human behaviour, there are few things more quintessentially social than eating together. We celebrate with food, we commiserate with food, we renew old ties and form new ones over breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s not essential, but having good company while eating is something we can all enjoy – indeed, the very word ‘company’ originates from the notion of those who ‘eat bread’ with you.
The object I’m sitting in front of represents that tradition perfectly – it’s a very simple long wooden table, big enough for about eight or ten people sitting on either side. This table sat in The Castle, a pub built in Liverpool in 1948. Over the years, The Castle changed hands a dozen times, gradually passing up towards ever larger corporations until the crash in the late 20s when it was bought and restored by a local family for a fraction of its price a few years previously.
Instead of running a normal for-profit pub however – a tricky proposition given the combination of cheap drinks and deliverbots – the O’Reilly’s decided to convert it into a subscription-based restaurant. Guests were encouraged to pay in advance for a set of meals, and while they had less choice in what they could eat on an individual basis, The Castle more than made up for that in terms of variety over time and affordability.
Since the O’Reilly’s had a predictable cashflow, zero rent, and lived in an area with an early form of basic minimum income, they were able to just about make ends meet, although they had quite some trouble finding enough subscribers for the first few months. Over time, though, The Castle became a regular destination for many locals, who might visit once or twice a week to catch up with neighbours, meet new people, or simply get some healthy food.
When The Castle was featured by a journalist from Hong Kong along with similar communal restaurants – which she termed ‘halls’ after classical monastic refectories and the collegiate system in Oxford and Cambridge – it began a movement that rippled across the world. It’s hard to pinpoint one particular reason why halls became so popular as a way of eating – in reality, there were several intertwined strands that seemed to reinforce each other.
For example, one simple attraction was that the food served at halls was freshly cooked, often from high quality ingredients that could be bought in bulk, since meals could be planned in advance. A common practice was to have produce delivered by UCS or other deliverbots to the hall’s kitchen and involve locals and their children in the preparation; after all, cooking is just as much a social activity as eating, and many appreciated being able to learn how to cook in practice, rather than through purely through AR or mimic scripted tutorials.
Halls could vary in size from just a dozen regulars to thousands, but the most successful halls tended to attract a few hundred reliable guests, which led into another of their strengths – the vibrant mixing of individuals and classes that occurred at mealtimes. While guests could, and frequently did, choose to sit with friends and acquaintances, smart hosts would gently encourage them to overcome their reluctance and occasionally shift around to meet new people – something that they invariably enjoyed.
Of course, this wasn’t possible for every hall – some were just too small to allow for proper mixing, or had too homogeneous a group of guests. Hosts tackled this in different ways, sometimes by offering discounted or free meals to travellers, or by setting up consensual augmented reality interfaces that would join together multiple halls to form a ‘virtual’ or ‘infinite’ hall where guests could mix; this worked best when the halls co-ordinated their menus and even furniture, which led to more than a few halls adopting the same style of tables and chairs that The Castle had.
Since most halls attracted subscribers through lower prices, they were usually run on a non-profit or charitable basis, making them more successful in those areas that had a form of basic minimum income or facilitated the formation of co-ops and crowdfunded ventures.
Today, we see halls as being commonplace, part of a tradition that extends back millennia to ancient Greece and Sparta. However, we sometimes forget how deeply alienated many people were from each other during the 20th and early 21st centuries, in between the time that billions moved from the countryside in to cities and when we developed new ways of coming together as local and virtual communities.
Halls speak to our strong need for social interaction, and for the ages-old idea that people will always need to eat – and they’ll enjoy doing it together.