Farm to table. Rustic, natural, organic, comfort. The buzzwords flying around food, chefs and restaurants have hit the tabletop, from earthenware plates to mason jars, simple silverware and roughed-up wooden furniture. From the East Coast to the West, the consensus on trends is clear: it's all about farmhouse simplicity.
Suggesting and specifying tabletop is not just a niche or a specialty; it's an art. We caught up with tabletop specialists from all parts of the country to talk about trends in their areas, and on the national scene. Their main tip? Let the food — and drink — be your guide.
When it comes to dinnerware it's all about the farm to the tabletop, literally. For the first time in years, stark white seems to be on the outs, at least on the independent restaurant scene. Earth-colored, pottery-style plates with slightly rough textures and imperfect shapes — the kind you might see in a country home — are in.
"The farm-to-table concept is no longer a trend — it's become a way of dining," says Chris Crocetti of R.W. Smith and Co. who works out of the Miami area. "Everything is going back to rustic."
Earthen colors help act as a backdrop for beautiful, natural, organic food, adds Morgan Tucker of M. Tucker, the New York division of Singer Equipment Co. The explosion of potters and ceramic specialists increasing their lines for commercial foodservice is evidence of this growing trend, Tucker points out.
One popular ceramic company in San Francisco sells not just to home cooks but to a slew of independent restaurants in the metro area as well. Many of these and other handmade, pottery-style plates come in anything but white, showcasing more neutral tones, grays and soft pastels, plus matte, grainy textures and shapes that aren't always perfectly consistent, according to Jennifer Johnson, who works out of R.W. Smith's L.A. office.
In other words, this trend has gone coast to coast.
Crocetti agrees and adds, "Perfection and uniformity is moving out, and unique shapes are moving in," he says. "We're seeing more plates with glazes or that are actually spotted or stained on purpose."
The more open embrace of colored plates has worked well for ethnic dishes and restaurants, says Shannon Kroner, dinnerware, flatware and glassware category manager for Edward Don & Co., the Woodridge, Ill.-based foodservice equipment and supplies dealership. "A lot of the colored and rustic pieces are playing into different types of cuisine, such as Asian, Latin and fusion," she says. For example, many restaurants serving more South American dishes, another burgeoning trend that's zeroed in on Brazilian, Ecuadorian and Peruvian cuisine, favor the darker, terra-cotta plates and pottery-like pieces in particular.
Tableware itself continues to get "greener," Johnson points out. One manufacturer offers a line of ceramic pieces made in such a way that its carbon footprint was reduced. Pieces like these tell a story of sustainability and can help a "green"-focused restaurant build its brand.
Social media continues to significantly impact tabletops too, Tucker points out. "More people are on their phones in restaurants taking pictures and posting them on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter," she says. "If a restaurant comes out with an interesting piece, people are naturally going to talk about it and take pictures. It becomes almost like a game."
Still, function needs to come first. "Using pieces just for their unique shape or just because they look cool is out," says Johnson. "They have to serve as a function."
Function often comes in the form of an individual serving vessel or family-style platter, in a material such as cast iron that can help keep the food warm and crisp, straight from the oven. Extending the farmhouse theme, simple, inexpensive mason jars, used for appetizers, dips and desserts, are also all the rage. Some restaurants use these jars as drinking and cocktail glasses, stuffed with seasonal herbs.
Traditional ordering structures seem to have gone by the wayside, and this change will impact tabletops. "Small plates are still popular, but they are evolving," says Johnson. "We're seeing more à la carte menus, rather than traditional courses or plates with a protein, starch and vegetable."
This translates not just into a variety of smaller plates rather than the standard 12-inch, but also smaller serving vessels like mini cast iron pots and mason jars. Other vessels supporting this trend include mini-fry and copper pans and taco servers, among other unique pieces. Even bread and butter no longer seem to just come to the table automatically; the pair is on the menu as a paid-for item, often served alongside different dipping sauces and butters in compartmentalized pieces, says Johnson, who notes the move toward offering more gluten-free options could have something to do with this. One restaurant in West Hollywood now presents its charcuterie dim sum-style, using a cart with à la carte service.
As menus become more eclectic, so are the ways in which culinary staff serve them. "We're seeing more mismatched table settings and everything being individualized," says Crocetti.
At the resort, high-end hotel level, however, most restaurants and catering operations continue to stick to traditional white for coursed meals. Tim Irey of Bargreen Ellingson in Seattle has seen an influx in nicer china purchases at this higher-end level, at least in his neck of the woods.
"We're seeing more English china and higher-quality dishware because either it's becoming more affordable or it's seen as more durable," Irey says. These operators like to make statements with their dishware to get away from the "me too" pieces, he adds. Johnson says she's seen the use of embossed white plates at these higher-end hotels and restaurants.
The resort-equals-white trend does have a few exceptions, Crocetti points out. Those with newer or remodeled restaurants tend to go for the barnhouse concept made popular by independent restaurants, he says. Even a handful of country clubs now go for the more casual, rustic look and are willing to experiment with a longer list of shareable plates.
Shareable plates don't just come in small packages. Many restaurants, including a number in New York, focus on family-style platters of food served in unique ways.
At Quality Italian in Manhattan, Tucker points out, a shareable chicken parmesan entrée comes out on a traditional pizza pan. And the restaurant uses cast iron skillets for big portions as much as for small ones.
"I'm also seeing a lot of customized wood, slate and iron used for platters, and now melamine companies are creating pieces that look like cast-iron skillets, but are made of plastics and are safe for dishwashers and high usage," Crocetti says.
The exception to the small-plates rule also seems to come through with desserts. "I don't see as many mini desserts anymore, but rather right-size or slightly larger plates with beautiful presentation that can be shared at the table," Johnson says.