Restaurateurs are updating their tabletops, replacing the clean white porcelain dishes that were once a hallmark of fine dining with a new rustic look.
Chefs say farm fare pops when served on handmade glazed ceramic or enameled iron and in stone and earth colors like gray and brown. The designs are updated, too, with shallower bowls and sloped plates.
The darker ceramics, wood accents and handmade aesthetic resonate with diners, restaurateurs say, because many customers are looking for ways to bring a farm-to-table feel to their own dining tables. Many are trying to purchase these dishes directly from the restaurants. In some cases, that means tracking down artisans who cater mainly to restaurants.
One influence for the new tabletop look: the 2010 cookbook "Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine." The book introduced the food—and presentations—of René Redzepi, the Copenhagen restaurant's celebrated chef, to U.S. readers. Noma served a snowman-shaped carrot and yogurt dish on a shallow ceramic gray and black plate.
Traditionally, fine-dining restaurants have favored porcelains such as bone china, which is lightweight, shiny and valued for its delicate appearance. Rather than using the traditional factory-made dishes, many restaurants now are switching to tableware handmade by ceramists.
In the new rustic aesthetic, dishes don't match perfectly and have slight imperfections, said Jono Pandolfi, a ceramics designer who works with restaurants including the Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park in New York and Tosca Café in San Francisco. Pandolfi, whose studio is in Union City, N.J., designed bud vases for a restaurant in New York's Museum of Modern Art, and then other restaurants started noticing his work. A place setting with more than a dozen components can cost about $200. A typical restaurant order can consist of 2,500 pieces of all sizes, which cost from $3 for tiny sauce dishes to more than $25 for the biggest plates, he adds.
Handmade tableware "dovetails nicely with the whole farm-to-table movement," he said. "The beauty of organic carrots is that they are not all perfect."
Last year, he created a handmade ceramic line for retailer Crate & Barrel that is reminiscent of wares he sells to restaurants, but with smaller bowls and flat plates. The newly launched Marbury line uses white glaze over black-stained clay and "perfectly imperfect" shapes, said Katie Fisher, Crate & Barrel manager for entertaining.
When Lee Wolen became a chef and part owner at Boka, a Chicago contemporary American restaurant, in 2012, he quickly purchased white porcelain plates and immediately regretted it. "I had a $13,000 budget and bought all white plates," said Wolen. "I definitely made a mistake and wanted a new budget." Online, he saw Scandinavian restaurants, including Noma, using more handmade-inspired tableware and immediately wanted that look.
After spotting Cloud Terre's wares a few months ago, he has ordered dark, handmade entrée plates with a bluish glaze that are shallower on one end and give the plate a small curve. A dark-brown butter dish helps Boka's homemade butter stand out. The larger plates can be more forgiving of imperfections, such as when the roasted chicken entrees don't perfectly match in size and shape, he said.
Wolen said that presenting Boka's food on a darker handmade plate can also be easier than working on a white canvas, where every bit of space must be planned out. "The food is more simple," he said. "You don't need as many garnishes to make it look as full."
Pandolfi said he intentionally leaves some of the outer surfaces of his dishes unglazed, providing a slip-free surface for guests or servers to hold. Inside, "the glaze sort of has a micro-texture that helps hide and conceal scratches," he said.
ABC Kitchen, a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant inside home-décor store ABC Carpet & Home in New York City, uses handmade dishes by ceramist Jan Burtz. Within the store, customers can purchase the dinnerware for $48 to $85 per plate. On the store floor, it is arranged in the same way as at the restaurant, so customers can make a connection, said Amy Ilias, executive vice president of art and design at the retailer. The store sells plates that are thinner plates than the restaurant's plates, which tend to get more wear and tear.