The first taste on the table, bread often makes a lasting impression on the restaurant experience.

Bread consumption ebbs and flows with culinary trends. One month bread takes a hit from the gluten-free movement; the next, artisan toast is all the rage. Overall, today’s bread baskets are too good to skip, with fancy bread service and flavorful spreads bringing renewed attention to the culinary staple that some call the staff of life.

Jon Davis has seen it all in the bread world—as Nancy Silverton’s founding pastry chef at Campanile and with more than 25 years at La Brea Bakery—and he likes “all the great table bread” that he sees right now, as well as service trends that highlight bread.

“In more formal settings, a server might provide a selection of nice bread and ask diners what they would like,” Davis says. This personalized bread service “helps keep consumption and waste down,” he adds, “and makes a nice presentation for something that can otherwise be overlooked.”

Diners also have trouble overlooking bread when it’s highlighted on the menu. The advantage to listing bread: It provides an advertisement and a description. The disadvantage: Not everyone wants to pay for something that historically has been free.

“Charging needs to be warranted,” Davis cautions. “Being charged for a thin slice of focaccia doesn’t add up.” However, a trio of breads and flavored butters can be a dish in itself, and worth a small charge.

Increasingly, artisan bakers are working with chefs and operators to develop special recipes that will complement the cuisine and the restaurant’s concept. This can mean supplying white, French-style loaves, flavored focaccia, or heritage and sprouted grain breads. New milling technologies have introduced more options, bringing grains like quinoa and amaranth into the mix.

“Consumers are demanding more from what they eat, and breads can offer nutritional value beyond just straight carbs,” Davis points out.

Creative and exciting bread needs exceptional extras to match. At Bueno Loco in Falmouth, Maine, servers deliver small squares of herb-flavored corn bread with jalapeño dipping oil. In New York City, The Marrow features house-made pretzel rolls served with whole-grain mustard, perfect offerings with the restaurant’s German cuisine.

“Some people are purists and want only plain olive oil or butter,” Davis notes, but he has no problem with innovative ideas. “I recently visited a place that served hand-made cream cheese, which was great. I’ve seen tapenade, Romesco sauce, and bean purées [served as bread complements]. These small details can make a huge impact.”

Feature, Menu Innovations