Tabletop Defines the Customer Experience

Photographer Christian Seel, Courtesy of Alinea.

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.



Regardless of the style and cuisine of a restaurant, first impressions are supremely important. When new customers are seated the first thing they see and touch is the items on their tabletop. Does your flatware look like the stuff they use at the school cafeteria? Your new guests develop confidence in your restaurant based on what they see and feel. If your flatware is cheap they may be reluctant try your higher priced offerings.


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