Everyone knows it’s true. The first impressions of a restaurant and the ambience through the evening can transform the act of eating into a dining experience.
And one of the key aspects of those first important moments are what goes on the table and we don’t mean the food.
The approach to tabletop design is a personal one and depends on the concept of the venue and the target market. There are some givens — cleaniness of plates, cutlery and glassware, and using the best quality you can afford—but there are lots of subtle ways to impress and make coming to your place more enjoyable.
Hospitality Magazine presents some examples of what restaurateurs and chefs are doing when it comes to their tables.
Attention to detail
Sydney restaurater Peter Fletcher says he’s continually looking at ways to invest in the the look of the tables at his north shore restaurant Rocket. The restaurant—which recently lured chef Wayne Rowe (ex-Bambini Trust) to head up its kitchen—features some lovely pieces of tableware that are both practical as well as good looking.
“People do notice the attention to detail that you offer,” says Fletcher. “I think that when you make that extra effort it looks very profession, it says quality.” Along with Rowe’s new menu Rocket has added some beautiful new tableware that shows off the food and dresses the table plus are things of beauty in themselves.
Rowe serves his soufflés in small copper pots that create a strong impression when they arrive at the table. “We often get comments about them,” Rowe says. “They look great plus you get a better product out using them. They cook more evenly and upright, and about five minutes faster which is a lot of time when you operating in an a la carte restaurant.”
And while water jugs are sometime a bit of an afterthought the ones that grace the table at Rocket are frosty aesthetic works of art. Fletcher said he’d been searching for jugs that looked good but that also were a bit larger than the usual ones on the market so that the time spent by staff filling up jugs would be reduced. “I wanted something a bit more stylish than your usual jugs,” Fletcher says. “But they are tough as well they can take the inevitable knocks they will get.”
Table lighting remains strongly in fashion for restaurants who want to create a great atmosphere at their venue and many are using it as an integral part of the interior design and to add interest.
You only need to check a restaurant like Sydney’s Forbes & Burton that launched 12 months ago with Tetsuya’s former head chef Dave Pegrum in the kitchen to see how effective table lighting can be. Restaurateur Adrian Hobbs says the restaurant uses lighting to great effect to turn the casual and buzzy lunchtime restaurant into a sophisticated and intimate space in the evenings when the white tablecloths replace the bare tabletops of the day.
While the restaurant design has used a minimalist approach — cutlery isn’t laid out until after the guests orders — small touches have been incorporated to create a unique and luxurious look with the ability to make subtle changes from night to night to surprise regular diners.
A special touch are spiral candle holders that were actually a gift from Nell Schofield and her father Leo. “They brought them back from India as a good luck present—they had them made by the Bishnoi villagers in Rajasthan. Though all the same shape they come in four subtle variations,” says Hobbs. “They were all hand made and the clay was exhumed from an oasis in the Thar Desert near Jodhpur.”
“They add some romance and some colour to the table and are a real talking point together with the food that Dave Pegrum puts on the table. It’s just another slight detail which enhances the dining experience of our customers.” The Indian candle holders are interchanged with glowing green and deep blue candle holders on other nights.
For glassware the top quality of Riedel was selected despite the expense and fragile nature of the premium glasses. To help reduce breakage a special rack was installed to house them. “They are just very good for wine,” Hobbs says. “But you have to be very careful with them.”
Creating a concept
When high profile restaurateur and chef Shannon Bennett was setting up the third spin off brand to his three hat diner Vue de Monde the aim was to recreate the feeling of a provincial French bistro. The design concept for Bistro Vue was ‘turn of the century back street Parisian Bistro.’ The aim was to ensure that it was very different from its older more sophisticated sibling in every detail including the choice of tableware.
At Bistro Vue the actual tables themselves are a talking point—they are actually made from wood that was previously the floor of a restaurant in South America. Hessian sacks hang from each table to hold the bread and on the table is crockery designed to have an old world look with a variety of dishes that range from pretty florals to blue and white oval shaped ones. Some dishes are served in enamel iron pots delivered to the table on timber boards.
The crockery was designed and made especially for Bistro Vue by Robert Gordon Pottery, a local company which Shannon Bennett has worked with previously in designing crockery especially to suit to his restaurants needs.
While the crockery is new the cutlery is antique bone-handled cutlery that was sourced from various antique shops around Melbourne. Bistro Vue spokesman Anna Curry says the most common reaction the restaurant gets from guests is “this reminds me of being at Grandma’s house”. The coffee cups and saucers were also collected from antique shops in the lead up to the Bistro opening.
While it seems many restaurants are eschewing the use of floral arrangements to dress a table there are some who see the great opportunity to impress that flowers present.
Bistro Vue has embraced flower power but in its own distinct way. The arrangements they use are by Joost—who also looks after the flowers for restaurant sibling Vue de Monde. They are arranged in old aluminium jars and small glass vases that are attached to the table lamps.
At Sofitel hotels—a hotel group known for its floral displays—flowers are used extensively both with dramatic room displays and subtle restaurant table decoration. A signature of the hotel brand, many of the displays are quirky and highly sculptural.
“There will be things like a single flower actually inside the vase or flowers with pebbles and other elements,” says Jenny Soo, director of sales and marketing at the Sofitel Wentworth Sydney. Soo says the hotel spends between $2500 and $3000 a week in flowers.
“Guests do love to see beautiful flowers around the hotel,” says Soo. “Flowers makes you smile, they make you happy and bringing a special light to occasions.”