Creativity is back.
Not like it ever really went away, but a new dawn in tabletop design and sourcing has set upon us, dealers say. With independent restaurant business on the upswing, boutique restaurant groups and hotels in major metropolitan areas throughout the country now set the trend for not only dining and drinking, but also in terms of interior décor and how tables are set.
This is especially the case on the East Coast, where in New York City, setting trends remains a constant goal — if not need — to set oneself apart from competition and create distinct concepts within the same restaurant groups. "Restaurants in New York have a unique challenge because they can't look at the competition to determine the trends, they are the ones feeling the need to set them," says Morgan Tucker, of M. Tucker, FE&S' 2012 DSR of the Year.
Chicago has seen similar patterns emerging among independent restaurant groups; Grant Achatz of Alinea has even designed his own line of tabletop pieces. Elsewhere in the middle of the country, restaurant operators still place an emphasis on a more casual, even eclectic, approach that includes smaller portions and items that are durable without being cheap, says Zena Dater, of Oswalt Restaurant Supply in Oklahoma City, Okla., and FE&S' 2008 DSR of the Year.
On the West Coast, where craft beer and cocktailing remains all the rage, demand continues for a wider selection of glassware and barware that includes vintage, unique and specialized items, and that demand has fallen upon commercial tabletop manufacturers, according to Gilles Brochard, senior business development manager for R.W. Smith & Co. and a tabletop specialist for the San Diego-based dealership.
Despite these strong regional preferences, the tabletop segment still features several distinct trends on a national level. Even those that may have started a year or two ago are just this year picking up steam as consumers return to restaurants and dollars begin to flow again.
There once was a time when dining out meant pining over the beautiful china, polished silverware, woven placemats and table accessories then only available to commercial foodservice operators. Now, those tables are turning — literally.
"I think the trend of home to commercial has taken over," says Tucker, who covers predominantly independent restaurants and hotels in the New York City market.
"Customers are serving in accessories like colanders for vegetables and little roasting pans for individual servings of sides. Something you'd see at someone's home is now what the restaurants want. They're trying to make the dining experience as warm and inviting as possible."
The recession may have changed the dining landscape in terms of value-added propositions, price reductions and discounting, but it also changed the atmosphere many restaurants, including high-end independents, strive to now create. Just as the white tablecloth, fine-dining institutions of yore have faded to make way for more casual yet sophisticated concepts, super-expensive, super-high-end tabletop pieces have been swapped out for more rustic, approachable pieces, Tucker explains. At the same time, they take care of portion control, she adds.
"This is where we're also starting to see color and a little embossment coming back in in small amounts, and a mixing and matching of brands and styles," Tucker says, reminiscent of the same eclectic collection you might have in your own home.
In fact, Tucker says, many tabletop manufacturers "have taken design patterns once only available for retail into foodservice. Sometimes I find myself in between a rock and a hard place trying to support the larger manufacturers who have built their business on high-end, durable items but also finding the artsy products that the new independent restaurants want that none of their competitors have," she says.
Brochard agrees. When it comes to glassware, this is especially the case. "The trick with glassware is you have so much available on the retail side that's not yet available on the commercial side," he says. At the same time, his forward-thinking, style-setting independent concepts want those pieces now.
Who said small plates were just a fad? For the past several years now, the appetizer section of the menu has expanded exponentially, with smaller bites, snacks and sharable items versus the oversized rib eye or piled high side. As consumers look to taste and try more dishes rather than sit with one heavy entrée, this also opens up doors for more creativity.
"The whole country is either aware of the need to eat healthier or trying to eat healthier and I think restaurants are trying to give a little more powerful punch in smaller bites and portions," Tucker says. "That has definitely affected the way they purchase tabletop."
In addition to the brightly colored ceramic roasting pots and cast iron serving vessels mentioned earlier, operators also look for a more eclectic selection of smaller pieces when it comes to plates, including veering away slightly from the traditional all-white to earth tones and some glazed pieces, according to Tucker. There is also a mixing of materials going on, from stone and slate to wood and cork, to aluminum and copper and brass, even more melamine as a durable, less expensive option. In fact, Tucker says, her clients want dishes specifically chosen for the menu item being served. Every time the menu changes, so do the plates.
R.W. Smith's Brochard says he also sees the "terra cotta" approach on the West Coast, and works with a local potter in San Diego to bring custom-made glazed plates, bowls and other accessories to his clients' tables.
And then there are the pieces with "bumps and valleys and peaks," others with crinkled shapes and pedestals or pieces with a little more height to them. "The all-white plate thing doesn't cut it anymore," Tucker says. "Everyone is looking for something really unique."
The eclectic look allows for creativity, but also for affordability, Tucker notes. "You don't see people purchasing as many sets anymore," she adds. Rather, many restaurants look to buy more one-offs, or 10 of one particular plate and move on to the next item.
Even restaurants with traditional appetizer-entrée-dessert menus are finding guests want to share more among the table, says Dater. "We rarely sell the standard 12-inch round anymore," she adds. "People are definitely looking for the smaller size plates, and more of them." While many of Dater's customers still like the white look to showcase well-presented dishes, they're experimenting with different small plate shapes, from coup to square to triangle and more.
When it comes to desserts, just as the industry saw the influx of shot glasses for amuse bouche and mini desserts a couple years ago, creative presentation and plate choice has continued, according to Brochard. "Desserts have definitely made a comeback in that way," he says. "Pastry chefs seem to have much more influence in the restaurant kitchens and on tabletop decisions these days."
From mini ice cream cones set in their own holders to goblets and glasses for parfaits, to huge fortune cookie-shaped vessels stuffed with treats, to chocolate-covered strawberry skewers and other "lollipops," operators are having a little fun with their end-of-the-meal impressions, according to Brochard.
Bread service is back and better than before. From handcrafted breads baked in house to locally sourced artisan varieties, some restaurants now even charge for the extra delicious affair, according to Brochard. "Bread baskets aren't really the norm anymore," he says. "People are making their own butters and we're seeing some different salt accoutrements and some really cool, small compartmentalized dishes for it all."
At Vera in Chicago, a series of three flavored butters (foie gras, olive oil and garlic) come in three square shaped dishes set atop a wooden board with sliced fresh bread. Nearby, at the newly opened Bavette's, owner Brendan Sodikoff went for a 1920s and '30s French Parisian look with a stack of antique-inspired bread plates rimmed with a pink and green floral pattern. And in San Diego, at former "Top Chef" contestant Brian Malarkey's restaurants, butter comes out on a metal block in the shape of a brick that's silver-plated and slightly warmed in a bread proofer at low temperatures to keep the stick of artisan butter slightly warmed for easy spreading. "Butter is in some ways a centerpiece for the table," he says.
At the same time that small plates are still in, many restaurants — both independent and chain — are looking to serve some main entrees, salads, pastas and sides in larger vessels for a retro, family-style approach. Many menus have changed in this way; in addition to a slew of snacks, starters and salads, there might be a selection of "larger plates" in medium, large and even larger portions that can be enjoyed individually or passed around a table.
"I'm seeing a lot of cast iron where the operator can cook, prepare and serve in the same dish so it really eliminates steps in the back of the house," Brochard says.
At Bagatelle in New York, a giant roasted chicken for two comes out in the copper roasting pan the staff used to cook it, Tucker adds.
In addition to cast iron, wood is hot for serving sharables. Literally. Traditionally just used for serving crusty flatbreads and pizzas, charcuterie and cheese, at STK Midtown truffle fries cut into perfectly rectangular pieces are stacked crisscross on small wooden boards.
"The main obstacle with these wood boards is that many of them are not NSF approved for food safety," says Brochard, noting that bacteria can harbor in between the cracks after multiple uses and washes.
While the traditional bread basket might be out, wrought iron baskets are used now for fries, vegetables and even homemade dessert doughnuts, as in the case at Tony Mantuano's Bar Toma in Chicago.
Metals in general are in, says Tucker. Metal tins are used for fries and traditional, tiered aluminum risers are used for raw seafood platters with oysters, clams and crab legs, as much as they once were (and still are) for tea sandwiches.
Once sleek and geometric, silverware is going ornate, both Tucker and Brochard point out.
A lot of the more rustic, throwback concepts are looking for "pieces that are really embellished and ornate, even dainty patterns that may have been dormant for 50 years.
Glassware has followed the same trend pattern in some cases, he says. "That old Waterford crystal and other pieces with etched glass seems to have made a comeback for cocktails," he says. In fact, Brochard has reconnected with a more traditional tabletop manufacturer known years ago for these retro patterns that are fashionable again.
In New York, "You can't go into a restaurant and not see a retro champagne saucer being used for martinis, the way they used to serve them," Tucker says.
When it comes to silverware, she's seeing more decorative, thoughtfully chosen steak knives with hand-blown glass or pearl handles and others with more colorful designs as conversation starters. "I think people appreciate a good, sharp steak knife and it adds to the service," Tucker says.
But even if some operators go more traditional than ornate with their silverware, they still seem to eschew the fancy, and the silver-plated items that can tarnish easily for simpler, but solid pieces, Brochard says.
"Cost and labor is very expensive right now and because silver-plated silverware tarnishes if it sits on the shelf, you have to designate someone to polish it frequently. No one wants that."
The vintage trend has woven into the bar as well, if not having begun there. Cocktails have taken center stage in the restaurant world, and that has heavily impacted what glass and barware restaurants buy, Brochard says.
In fact, just as plates are chosen according to the food served on them, glassware is being selected based on the type of drink. "There's a miniaturizing of plates and now the same thing is happening with cocktails," Brochard says. Manhattans and classic martinis pour into traditional coup glasses, while highballs are reserved for the more creative concoctions with artisan spirits, homemade tonics, and other elixirs. Heavy-bottomed rocks glasses are sought for classic cocktails like old fashioned's and craft bourbons.
And when it comes to beer, each type has its own serving glass, Brochard says. Pilsners have pilsner glasses, ales have the pint, Belgians have the curve. Most craft beer glasses can now forgo the durability test because many restaurants and bars choose the European approach to serving — cellar-cool. And then there are the many bar tools, from spray bottles to shakers, stirrers, and little caddies and compartments for fresh herbs displayed on the bar.
Brochard says he works with mixologists, bartenders and beverage directors on tabletop and glassware sourcing just as much as he works with chefs for individual dish sourcing. "Most of them are pretty specific about what they want," he says. "They come very prepared, already knowing which glasses they want for this and that. They'll hunt glassware from anywhere and bring you samples, but sometimes I have trouble finding commercially made versions for their application."
Bare is what it's about. A trend seen for the last few years, tabletop settings continue to go minimal as diners' approach, Brochard says. Typically in these cases, the operator has gone to lengths to seek out beautiful wood tables or even hand-crafted ones, so why cover them up?
"There is a very rustic, grassroots approach to dining going on and that is definitely carrying over into tabletop design," Brochard says.
That means no more white tablecloths – simple linen napkins, typically in black to prevent lint sticking and even cheap bar towels for a rustic look have taken over, according to Tucker.
Accessory choices have also gone bare, if not gone away almost completely. Small candles might be the only table add-on an operator looks for these days, says Brochard. The idea? To showcase the food and its more artful presentations. Spotlight bulbs overhanging the tables are becoming the biggest accessories these days, he finds.
When it comes to water glasses, many operators are going even more rustic, sourcing inexpensive glass pitchers and refillable bottles with rubber tops once used for homemade wine and sodas for chilled, filtered water without ice and a couple small glasses for self-pouring at the table. "Without ice, it's easier to pour and you don't need to have staff doing as many refills," Dater says. "If you give me a glass half-filled already with ice, I will drink it pretty quick."
In this increasingly culinary-driven world, where food is the new fashion and the new fashion is food, tabletop plays an integral role in how operators are bringing their brand and food art to their customers.White is hot, but so is the unique. At least for now.