The tabletop often represents a foodservice operator's first chance to make a statement about what their guests are about to experience, so choosing the right flatware, dinnerware and other supporting items is an important part of this process. Here we take a look at what's influencing today's tabletops.
Forget about the bread and butter — tabletop is the ultimate first impression for many restaurants and other foodservice operators. From choosing linens and accessories to selecting flatware and dishware, developing place settings is as much about branding and concept reinforcement as the menu, décor, or plain old advertising.
How operators choose to lay out their tables may not make or break a diner's experience, but this step certainly advertises what's to come. "Tabletop sets the tone for the restaurant," says Alexa Wilson, territory sales manager with R.W. Smith & Co., a San Diego-based foodservice equipment and supplies dealership and FE&S' 2011 Dealer of the Year. "People go to restaurants for the food, but the tabletop is part of the design and a big part of what makes the food appeal to you. It's the artist's palette. Plus, it's fun."
At the same time, navigating a tabletop budget is no easy task. With most foodservice operators in all segments looking to cut costs wherever they can, tabletop and permanentware selections are often the first to become "value engineered," which is to say downgraded or eliminated due to financial constraints. But it's not impossible to create a beautiful tabletop, even on a tighter budget, says Pam Bernardi, sales manager for the Southwest group at the Wasserstrom Company, a Columbus, Ohio-based foodservice equipment and supplies dealership.
When it comes to plateware, the trend is all about prioritizing. "What I'm finding with a lot of the restaurants is they still want traditional china, but they want the bright white, not the American white for main dishes and entrees," says Bernardi.
And, while many chefs still go for the all-white look to showcase their prettily presented food, increasing numbers are experimenting with colored and eclectic dishes for appetizer, bread and butter, dessert and other side plates, Bernardi says. The result is a more playful and contemporary look, but without as much commitment to one line of china and with the ability to change out presentation vessels just as frequently as the menu items themselves. This helps minimize boredom among customers and breakage through regular use.
It's easier for operators to opt for an eclectic look if they have a menu full of small and sharable plates — another food and service trend that remains strong. At Girl and the Goat in Chicago, "Top Chef"-winner Stephanie Izard's Mexican-style, hand-painted terra-cotta and ceramic plates not only serve as cool and durable serving vessels for her tapas-like lineup of sharable dishes, they also add to the restaurant's décor, thanks to the plates stacked high on open-air shelves above the exposed kitchen line. And, in this case, ceramic represents more than just pretty plates — it offers durable dishes that can stand up to wear and tear as well as high heat.
"Restaurants are throwing back to the stoneware look, but they want it vitrified for the durability and with a matte, natural finish," Bernardi says. For many chef-driven restaurants, this natural, artisan-style look coincides with the throwback to rustic cooking and homemade everything.
In addition to swapping these types of dishes in and out for small plates and appetizers, some restaurants are picking certain days of the week to go for this more casual, rustic look. "At Noca in Phoenix they have always had traditional white china, but lately for Sunday dinner they're using wood and pottery for dishes," Wilson says.
In the luxury, fine dining, and casino worlds, restaurants like the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas are plating dishes according to each menu item and really looking for those special tabletop pieces or for spins on traditional tableware that will create that "wow" appeal, according to Lisa Teigen, a manufacturer's rep with The Fischer Group. "[The Cosmopolitan] doesn't get any more hip as Vegas operations go," Teigen says. "We're seeing more of the 30- and 40-year olds spending a little more, and the hotel has been trying to cater to that."
So, when it comes to tabletop at these fine-dining and celebrity chef-driven restaurants populating Sin City, the look should make customers ask, "What recession?" — even if cost considerations were taken into account when pulling together the tabletop.
"Chefs are very shape driven when it comes to dishware," Teigen says. "The trend is very refined and elegant, with unique pieces, from squares to rectangles to some colored dishes. I think the outlets are trying to create the feel of something more special. They're looking to create uniqueness through the details." Achieving such a goal translates into elements like texturized woven placemats, unique charger plates, wire bread baskets, cool new butter plates or mini dishes in different sizes for amuse bouche and appetizers.
Many Las Vegas restaurants are going for an eclectic pairing of dishes as well. At Jose Andres' Jaleo at the Cosmopolitan, Teigen says, "every item they have on the menu is plated so specifically to the item itself." As a result, a wider range of dishes might be used, but the restaurant is buying less of each style. "Instead of buying 50 dozen of one style of plate, they'll buy three dozen — I'm seeing more and more restaurants lowering the quantities they're buying," Teigen adds.
Varying the items used helps boost the visual interest of the dishware, while allowing for more flexibility in case plates break or chefs come up with different ideas for how to plate dishes. It also cuts down on upfront costs and helps prevent overspending.
The individual serving trend has taken hold at the buffet as well, Teigen says, referring again to the Cosmopolitan. "Again, everything is individually plated," she says. "Every item has its own vessel and cool little pieces in different shapes and sizes, from square to round to flat to coupe."
A handful of chefs and restaurateurs around the country are experimenting with custom-designed plateware, says Wilson. "Some of the chefs we're working with are creating their own pottery lines with a potter in San Diego," she says. In Chicago, Grant Achatz has been fashioning his own line of dishes for Alinea and the newly opened Next.
And a throwback to the retro logo look is becoming increasingly popular of late, according to Wilson. "You still see the logo plates for the country clubs; but we just worked on a new restaurant with a very tavern feel, so they want the white plate with the custom logo."
Again, though, prioritizing the use of these custom plates is key to preventing overspending. "We have customers who may not want to spend a lot of money, but they want that customization and will splurge on those key pieces that will make the tabletop unique," Wilson says. "You don't need a logo on a [bread and butter] plate, for example."
Dressing the Table
In other good news for cost-conscious tabletop shoppers, less is more when it comes to decorating the table — or not. "I'm seeing more bare tables with maybe just some textured placemats," Wilson says. Lots of bare wood, butcher block, and maybe the use of a little paper seems to be the trend as opposed to classic tablecloth.
Linens, too, are getting downsized. While black and even chocolate brown napkins are becoming increasingly popular to prevent the white-fuzz-on-your-pants problem, more casual, trendy eateries are using simple dishrags as napkins. "Bar towels — they're trendy and cheaper than the typical napkin," Bernardi says. Here again, the trend has a cost-saving benefit. And laying flatware versus rolling it up has become a trend as well, maybe as a way to show off higher-quality, polished silverware.
When it comes to tabletop accessories, again, minimalism is the key, Wilson says. "No one wants clutter," she says. No one seems to want caddies, salt and pepper shakers, or vases, either.
"Not a lot of people are asking for flower vases anymore," notes Bernardi. "Sometimes customers will buy a shallow glass and float a bud in it, but we might have two restaurants doing that right now."
The minimalist look may be the result of a recession-rocked economy that's caused foodservice operators to go back to the basics. Or, it could be the result of physically shrinking restaurants, which mean shrinking tables, too. "Tabletops are getting smaller and smaller," Bernardi says. "I always have to ask my customers, 'What's your smallest table?' If it's a 30-by-30, everyone may want 12-inch plates, but if you have a 30-inch table and you have flatware and glassware, you don't have much room for more."
Focusing on Flatware
Flatware is one of the easiest tabletop areas to splurge on, and with good reason, Bernardi says. "I always explain to customers you don't want to go low quality on flatware. I always think of the pizza parlors where you go in and you're trying to cut your pizza with flimsy silverware served on plastic plates." In other words, just because you're supposed to hold a menu item with your hands doesn't mean your flatware should be completely nonfunctional.
That said, operators are aware of this. "Customers are still striving to have nice flatware and splurge a little there," Bernardi says. "You want the heaviest weight for the money."
When it comes to selecting flatware, one major consideration — aside from durability and quality — is availability, Bernardi says. "Flatware and china manufacturers in the United States are not keeping on hand the same quantities they did eight years ago. So I always say you want to ask if a particular style is going to be readily available ongoing. Some people have a hard time sourcing the flatware they've chosen."
While there's less room for variety and experimentation with flatware as compared to plateware, many restaurants are paying more attention to silverware these days. "Vintage has been really hot," Wilson says. "We've kind of seen it in the last year, but I've seen it even more recently — people going for the kind of flatware their grandma had with the intricate, ornate patterns and antique look. This isn't really at the mom and pop places — more at the funky burger joints, the bistros, the trendy places."
Glassware, Stem and Barware
Vintage has made its way over to glassware as well. "I think modern is still very popular when it comes to glassware, but certain concepts are trying to appeal to that comfort-of-home feeling," Wilson says. "Some token vintage glassware is really popular, like Irish coffee glasses used for water and different cocktails."
There's also been a throwback to the classic coupe glasses, sometimes called Paris coupe, used in the twenties and thirties for champagne but now being used for martinis and other specialty drinks and mixologist creations, Wilson says. Bernardi also says she's seen the coupe return in glassware, just like it did for white plates a couple years ago.
Chicago's cocktail-focused lounge the Drawing Room uses coupe glasses for just about all of award-winning mixologist Charles Joly's creations, from old school, traditional daiquiris frothed up with egg whites instead of ice to homemade sour-mix infusions and champagne-topped drinks.
"The triangular cocktail glass for the martini didn't really catch on until the fifties," Wilson says. In fact, the coupe and vintage look are getting so popular that typically contemporary manufacturers are releasing retro-inspired lines.
For rocks-based cocktails, again, classic old school is the look, says Bernardi. And some restaurants are keeping up with the stemless wine glasses for a rustic, durable and easy-to-handle option. But with such an emphasis on cocktailing these days, the focus has turned more to glassware for mixed drinks.
In some cases, classic barware is seeing more parts of the restaurant. Sable Kitchen + Bar in Chicago, for example, focuses on cocktails throughout the entire meal, even at dessert. That means a wider variety that includes a selection of aperitif and after-dinner glassware, from cognac glasses to sipping vessels for homemade limoncello and rare spirits. Craft beers, from Belgians to pilsners to darker ales, are getting their own specific glass treatment as well.
And glass is also being used to serve food. "I have been seeing a lot of mason jars used for dips and pâtés, and small four-ounce glass dishes for desserts, treats and other amenities," Wilson says.
With food, energy and labor costs on the rise, tabletop is an easy area to downplay in purchases, but it takes time, attention to detail and a little creativity to stay on trend and on concept. "My customers are saying they are combatting food costs so severely — the costs have gone up 8 percent to 10 percent in the last six months — but they want to do whatever they can to still make the restaurant look good and infuse more life into it. And they want to do it within the financial boundaries they have."
These days, dressing the table is all in the details.