Crisp white tablecloths, classic white plates and glistening crystal glassware – nothing quite sets the tone for a quality dining experience than an elegantly laid table, but does investing in top of the line tableware really pay off?
A restaurant’s tableware has the unique ability to communicate to diners what they can expect from their meal. The debate as to whether or not a sizable investment in quality tableware is really worth it, however, is something that many restaurateurs struggle with. So how do restaurants find a balance? Does compromising on quality, even if it’s the slightest of downgrades, reflect negatively on a restaurant’s brand?
Hospitality magazine recently caught up with Julie Manfredi- Hughes from Manfredi Enterprises and Fiona Rey from the Trippas White Group to discuss everything from statement pieces to classic white plates, and whether quality arrangements can be achieved without breaking the bank.
Julie Manfredi- Hughes, the creative mastermind behind the tabletop designs at the Manfredi group of restaurants, says that she engages both local and international artists and potters to create unique pieces and the business also has its own Ceramica di Manfredi brand of crockery. Manfredi- Hughes says that although she doesn’t believe that tabletop design should be the focus of a meal, it needs to complement the food, and as such must be of the same calibre as the fare that is served upon it.
“I think that high quality restaurants make the effort to invest in quality tableware, I mean for me, that’s a part of the dining experience,” she says. “Compromising on quality is just something that we wouldn’t do in our restaurants.
“Nothing bores me more than going into a restaurant or a café where everything is the same - you know, what’s on offer down the road at the local catering shop. I think everyone is sort of looking for that point of difference these days, it’s like it’s almost become expected.”
Manfredi comprises three restaurants throughout NSW: Balla at Sydney’s The Star, Manfredi at Bells and Pretty Beach House, as well as coffee brand, Espresso di Manfredi. Manfredi-Hughes is very hands on when it comes to tabletop design, and says that in order to ensure consistency in quality, the group decided to enter the manufacturing space.
“One of the reasons that we have gone into manufacturing ourselves is to have a bit of control over [quality] and some control over the pricing as well,” she says. “Whether the final product is good or bad - you’ve got to take that risk as well, but essentially, you have that ultimate control.
“We have always kept a consistency in terms of producer and manufacturer… For example with Espresso di Manfredi, we developed a cup suite with Rod Bamford, one of our ceramic designers, with the aim of creating something that was functional, timeless and elegant, and would work for the coffee brand.”
Quality pieces to complement quality fare
With over 30 years’ experience in the business, Manfredi Enterprises has developed strong relationships with local and international artists, enabling the group to source and develop unique pieces that are consistent both in terms of quality and style. Manfredi-Hughes admits that while replacing quality pieces can be expensive, it is a cost that simply needs to be worn.
“For us there has always been a constant trend of looking for quality items - items that are functional, at the same time as useful and elegant. We’ve always worked with artists and designers and commissioned them to do certain things to add character - there is a big trend towards that now at all levels of the market.
“It’s really a matter of just trying to maintain a certain standard, and each restaurant has to decide on where they invest their dollar and what they need to keep replacing. For example at Bells, I had Jonathan Baskett, a well-known Australian glass artist, hand blow some beautiful blue goblets. It’s a big deal to replace all the blue glass and not to compromise and go, ‘you know what, maybe we just won’t bother. We’ll just put a normal glass on the table,’ but it’s like, well, that’s one of the signatures of the restaurant and really adds a point of difference, so you do keep investing in that.
“It’s the same with Balla, we have beautiful pottery and beautiful Italian knives and forks, and we keep investing in those things because they are part of the whole design and brand experience so to speak; you just have to make those decisions.”
In terms of other quality manufacturers, Manfredi-Hughes sights two that are ahead of the curb in the food service scene.
“Riedel glassware is doing amazing things now. When we set up Balla, we specifically imported a new glass shape that they were making called a swirl glass which is a stemless glass, and designed so the wine can be swirled around - we were looking for something that just took it to a new level and that did. Riedel offers different grades of glassware for hospitality, and for very fine wine. It’s an incredible brand; it’s a go-to for pretty much for all restaurateurs these days.
“It’s the same with companies like Villeroy and Boch that is now very specifically into the food service market as well. They’ve developed a number of fantastic chefs ranges with beautiful shapes. Hospitality is big business for quality glass and tableware.”
Finding a balance
The Trippas White Group boasts a portfolio of 13 venues, all of which are dotted across Australia’s east coast. Offering everything from fine dining at 360 Bar and Dining in Sydney’s Centerpoint Tower, to a more casual approach at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, the Trippas White Group has varying needs when it comes to tableware.
Stylist for Trippas White, Fiona Rae, says that above all, the tabletop needs to complement the food of each individual venue, but style doesn’t necessarily need to cost the earth.
“A great tabletop set-up really complements the food without question, and I think that also translates into the chef really going to an effort in how the meal presented. It’s not just slapped on a plate and sent out - some thought has been given into how the meal is presented and then that sort of feeds back,” she says.
Rae says that while some of the tableware purchased for the group’s fine dining restaurants is of very high quality, she also mixes up the crockery with less expensive pieces.
“Investing in quality is worth it but it’s also good to mix it up. There are a couple of key items that give the most wow factor and are a higher spend, but it’s not on every dish. So there is an overall perception that everything is of high quality, or high end but it’s not necessarily so,” she says.
With a bit of imagination, restaurants can create a point of difference within a reasonable budget, she says, and this can be achieved by having a mix of stylish yet functional statement pieces as well as the classic plain white plate.
“[Statement pieces] give a surprise element when they come to the table.
“For example at 360, the pate is served in a gorgeous rectangular wooden caved bowl with the pate sitting inside. It definitely gives a wow factor when it arrives at the table; it just really adds something special to the dish as it’s contained in something that is totally unexpected.
“Botanic Restaurant also features a flat white plate that curves up on two sides and food presented on that works really well; it makes it look very contemporary. There has been a lot of thought that has gone into presenting what comes out to the table, it’s not just everything on a white plate.”
It terms of consumer expectations, Rae admits that not everyone is observant when it comes to what their food is served on, however unique statement pieces have the ability to create a conversation which immediately makes that meal memorable.
“I think that some people just wouldn’t notice at all, and for others it would have a major impact. With plain white plates people don’t take note, and when it is a little bit different, it becomes a talking point, which is great if people are then talking about what is in front of them.”