You could say the tabletop is the heart of a restaurant. The dining atmosphere, the plating, and the food itself all meet here, as guests take in the pleasure of their interactions and their meals. It might take a backseat from time to time, but the tabletop ties together the full eating experience.
Whether restaurateurs hew closely to tradition or aim to completely rework the definition of tabletop, their choices have an impact on diners’ perceptions of their restaurants. Diners looking for a more relaxed atmosphere can find it reflected in casual, earthy tableware. Those in search of an upscale, classic experience can find it in crisp linen tablecloths and ornate utensils.
A simple, minimalist setup is a go-to for many restaurants. Holly Smith, chef and owner at Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, Washington, calls the table “a canvas waiting for color.” Cafe Juanita serves Northern Italian cuisine, and the star feature of its dining room is the wall of windows that allows guests to view a canopy of trees outside. “The decoration in the restaurant really comes from the food and the wine on the table,” she says. “My tabletop is very minimal. You have only what you need.”
Budget constraints combined with a desire to reduce distractions mean that restaurants often opt for the table service that goes with everything: the white plate. It’s a classic choice. Cafe Juanita uses white round plates as well as gourmet bowls, oblique bowls in three sizes, soup plates, and large and small rectangles.
“Quality is always the driving force,” Smith says of her decision process. “We then need to make sure, in such a small space, that we can store and care for our stock.” Sometimes she orders special shapes for menu items she is preparing to introduce. Still, “there are many things I covet but will never have,” she says.
Fine-dining restaurants have traditionally kept the tabletop unadorned, except for linen and perhaps cut flowers or a candle. The experience of eating is emphasized above all else.
Jeff Frisby, restaurant manager at Restaurant Iris in Memphis, Tennessee, says he intends his tabletop setup to “reflect the style of the food, ambiance, and décor of the restaurant—simple and elegant.”
In Chicago, the Michelin three-starred Alinea expands this notion into a philosophy—where form is quite literally function. The table service is incorporated into the meal.
“We decided that anything and everything on the table, including decorative items, must serve a real culinary or experiential purpose,” says co-owner Nick Kokonas. Their “hot potato cold potato,” a hot potato morsel with a black truffle slice skewered over cold potato soup, is served in a wax bowl made daily by the same chef who prepares the dish. Their chocolate dessert is served directly onto a silicon tablecloth.
“From the time you are little, you [learn] the idea of stabbing or lifting food and putting it in your mouth directly. We try to break that monotony and force people to take notice of the moment,” Kokonas says. The team at Alinea has designed more than 35 custom pieces of tableware in cooperation with Martin Kastner of the design firm Crucial Detail, including special holders for fragrances.
“Insane amounts of time, money, creativity, collaboration, and effort go into Alinea’s tabletops,” Kokonas says. “It is one of our hallmarks.”
That philosophy holds true at many fine-dining respites. Signature touches mark restaurants’ tabletops as uniquely theirs, making a visual impression in guests’ minds. Restaurant Iris folds its napkins into the shape of an iris. In Seattle, the upscale restaurant Canlis keeps a rotary phone at “Table No. 1,” the favorite table of restaurant founder Peter Canlis as well as former regular John Wayne.
Clean, geometric shapes and bold textures are leading trends in table service, and are easily adaptable across the spectrum of restaurants, from fine dining to casual affairs.
Guests at Root Down in Denver arrive at the table to find square white plates with rounded corners, echoing the restaurant’s funky retro-modern feel. The Stanton Social in New York serves many dishes on rectangular glass plates. And Husk, in Charleston, South Carolina, uses cast iron pans and wooden plates in some of its presentation, feeding into its Southern flair.