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What is a Refectory Table?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 16, 2024
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A refectory table is a medieval style of wood dining table that is long and narrow. The base has two trestles or pedestals joined with a wooden slat or stretcher. These tables were first used by monks in a monastery dining hall which is called a refectory. There were usually many refectory tables in each monastery’s dining hall. Walnut was the first wood used to make the refectory table, but by the 16th century when the tables were made not only in Italy but in Germany and northern European countries, oak versions became common.

Shorter refectory dining tables seat eight or 10, while longer types may fit 16 people. The longer refectory tables often have a drop leaf on one or both ends. Wood slats under the table top can be moved to drop the leaves down or positioned to hold them up to create extra table space. Each drop leaf on a refectory table may seat two extra people. Other features on refectory tables may include a drawer on one side of the table's length. This is a convenient feature as placemats or cutlery may be stored in these drawers.

Antique French refectory tables from the 1600s are usually made of walnut and have heavy, turned legs with carving around the top table edge. The stretchers on these antique dining tables tend to be molded and very low to the ground — even touching the floor. Many of these rustic antique French tables are sold as refectory farmhouse dining tables. Regular farmhouse tables look similar to the refectory table style except they don't have stretchers. Refectory kitchen tables are shorter than the dining tables.

Antique refectory tables are often very rustic looking with cracks and dents that only make them more desirable in homes with a casual elegant look sometimes called shabby chic. A refectory table is a good choice for narrow dining rooms since it's thinner in width than regular dining tables. Dining room width is important since enough room needs to be allowed for dining chairs to be pushed out from the table without them scraping the wall.

Some people like to create an office with a refectory table as a large desk. A computer monitor may fit on the floor inside the stretchers and attractive wicker or rattan baskets could be stacked on the other side to hold office supplies. Refectory tables also make space-saving boardroom meeting tables.

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Discussion Comments

By yumdelish — On Jun 17, 2011

It sounds to me like refectory tables are very similar to the trestle tables put together by pioneers. In the days before dining room sets took over people threw together a few planks of wood on something fairly solid and ate as a group.

By Acracadabra — On Jun 16, 2011

@Windchime - Hey that sounds like a really great idea. I would love to eat at a restaurant like that. It may be a bit odd at first, and it would depend on the reason I was eating out, but I can imagine it's more social than squeezing around the usual small dining table.

Right now I have a drop leaf table in my kitchen, which I chose because there really isn't room for something bigger on a permanent basis. I suppose it's functional, but not very exciting.

If I had the space I would definitely be looking around at antique furniture, preferably something like an oak refectory table. It would be a great excuse to have dinner parties with more than three guests!

By Windchime — On Jun 15, 2011

A good friend of mine runs a very successful restaurant based on the concept of eating at oak and pine refectory tables.

When he started out people thought he was mad. I suppose the idea of having people pay to eat communal style seemed a bit of a risk. But he ploughed on, combining rustic food with a wonderful atmosphere, and is now booked solid for weeks ahead pretty much all of the time.

His latest scheme is to have open dinners, where reservations only guarantee a guest a seat. This lets them meet a lot of new people, and is proving very popular with newcomers to the area or those looking for a date.

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