For a long time, a plain white plate just worked. No one paid much attention to it because only the food mattered. But now that chefs realize color and the shape of a plate can add drama and dimension to a dish, the tabletop is no longer a background player.

Now that tableware’s no longer an afterthought, it’s being purposely paired with the restaurant’s identity and incorporated into the dish-building process – punching up the presentation while reinforcing the overall concept and ethos.

How do we know? Expenditures in tableware are projected to increase consecutively for the next three years, according to the Manufacturers’ Agents Association for the Foodservice Industry. The latest forecast shows that operators will spend 5.1% more on tabletop presentation this year than they did in 2015. 

Operators are wowing their customers with unexpected combinations of colors, patterns and shapes, creating a dining experience that rewards guests with multilayered visuals and flavors.

For example, Quince in San Francisco commissioned exclusive ceramic and wood place settings to complement its refined cuisine and elegant interiors.

“When a dish is created for the menu at Quince, the presentation – colors, shapes and the overall compositions of the food – is an important part of the creative process and is considered at every step of dish development,” says Chef-Owner Michael Tusk.

Quince is also changing up utensils, borrowing the concept of plating tweezers from the back of the house.

“Our selections provide a meta-language or architecture for the food. It gives us the ability to communicate different stories,” Tusk says. “The tweezers instead of a fork can be playful, yet practical for eating delicate lettuces or flowers. Other times it emphasizes a dramatic effect, such as when we use the tongs with our smoking Binchōtan to present duck gizzards as a second service to the duck prep.”

The outdoors are reflected at every possible turn at the 240-acre Mineral Springs Ranch in Carlton, Oregon, which is home to Soter Vineyards and its culinary program. Produce is grown, and meat is raised on its biodynamic farm.

Guest place settings include menus mounted on wooden boards sourced from Oregon forestry, burlap placements, and a single stone collected from the farm. In lieu of plates, tastings are served on wooden boards. “We don’t want to deter from the surrounding environment,” says Hallie Whyte, director of consumer sales. “Instead, we use our tablescapes to subtly connect everything together.”

While some operators draw from their surroundings, others are honoring the past through vintage throwbacks. Plates with antique prints can be found at restaurants across the country, including Maurice in Portland, Oregon, Bar La Grassa in Minneapolis and Bohemian House in Chicago.

Many restaurants are updating the floral and toile colors to include gray, Nordic blue and black-and-white combinations, as well as adding more organic shapes such as triangular plates, according to Churchill China.

For some concepts, tableware can and does make a bold and impactful statement. Randi Sirkin, director of creative services for Philadelphia-based Starr Restaurants, works closely with chefs to ensure their tabletop programs generate excitement and reflect each restaurant’s concept. 

“People are just so enthralled when they are presented with something that’s unique and really fun,” she says.

When The Clocktower was in the works, the chef tasked Sirkin with creating a rock ’n’ roll vibe that incorporated skulls. “I collaborated with an Etsy vendor that was able to place custom decals on vintage plates. Our concept includes a mixture of black, pink, purple and gray plates that all have a skull decal.” Still, Sirkin recommends keeping a core china program in place to ensure a restaurant can maintain its inventory and augment the experience with the specialty touches.

Looking good comes at a price, however. Custom pieces may not cost much more to produce than core china, but the shipping costs can elevate the price tag considerably. The good news? Sirkin has found that most specialty pieces are as durable as everyday plates. Good finds can also be scored from closeout options and flea markets.

“The funny part, is we don’t mind if some of the pieces wear – we like the distressed look. We like it to feel unique, as if it has been around,” she says.

But be aware that anything unique or fun is prone to theft. “We’ve found that people really like to help themselves,” she says.

To reduce or prevent such theft, train staff to keep an eye on the table and clear it before temptation kicks in. It also helps to include a fun but serious note on the menu, offering customers an opportunity to buy the tableware they’ve taken a liking to, and a warning that there is no five-finger discount.

These extra steps may seem onerous, but a good-looking table is worth the trouble.

The Ideal Tabletop

Looks and personality are equally important when a restaurant strategically creates a stronger connection between the food and tableware. 

Some examples:

Alinea, Chicago
Owners Chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas

Courses plated in curvaceous bowls and on surprising surfaces, such as acrylic panels of artwork, to make a visual connection between the food’s colors and textures.

Manresa, Los Gatos, California
Chef-owner David Kinch

Dishes paired with earth elements, such as truffles in a wood box, courses in colored, imperfectly round bowls and stone slabs to connect food to the earth. 

Marta, New York
Chef-partner Nick Anderer

Old-world Italian meets the modern world on hand-painted plates and wood boards.

Melissa Trimmer and Steve Affixio are Food Fanatics chefs who can’t help but notice every last detail.