Long tables in loud restaurants aren't well suited for conversation. In reality, you'll likely only talk to the people right next to you or right across from you. So, who you sit next to ends up being an important decision.
Recently, a friend recommended that we take a break from our conversations in the middle of our meal to let everyone give a brief life update. At first, this felt awkward, but afterwards I was glad we did it. By having people share common answers that they'd likely repeat over and over again, there was more time for meaningful conversations.
In the future, I might take this one step further and have people change seats once during the meal. There's nothing worse than having gone to dinner with someone you wanted to catch up with and leaving without having talked.