The right tableware will set the mood for the dining experience you want to create, but choosing wisely is more complicated than ever. Diane Lane reports
Choosing tableware used to be a case of selecting the colour or pattern on a range of bowls and plates, but in the past few years it has become a lot more complicated than that. Tableware manufacturers now offer items in all manner of shapes, sizes and materials - such as shot glasses, porcelain canapé spoons and wooden or slate boards designed to carry a variety of miniature dishes.
"We are seeing a multitude of shapes and sizes, all produced in a variety of materials such as ceramic, glass, wood and slate," says Peter Lewis, sales and marketing director of RAK Porcelain Europe, whose ceramic ranges feature a selection of interlocking dishes that can be used for serving a variety of courses. He explains: "In their need to differentiate themselves from the competition, many restaurants use unusual serving methods to enhance the food."
At manufacturer Villeroy and Boch, national sales manager Simon Kitto has noticed a change in tableware buying habits. "Fewer and fewer operators want a standard starter, main and dessert plate," he says, "and we are seeing more chefs buying a main range, but additionally purchasing a lot of other dishes to allow them to be more creative with their presentation."
It was with this type of food presentation in mind that the company developed its Marchesi collection, a range that includes smaller plates and bowls, and Pi Carre, which is suitable for mixing and matching, with lots of bowls and plates. "There is still the need for large plates," Kitto says, "but also for a multitude of sizes and shapes to reflect the grazing style of food offered by many establishments these days."
One such establishment is Abode Hotels' newest property on Manchester's Piccadilly, where Michael Caines has installed executive chef Ian Matfin to look after the dining operation. One section of the menu features a choice of 15 grazing dishes as a slightly different take on the tapas style, and requires an altogether different type of tableware than for the more traditional à la carte section.
"Our tableware for the grazing dishes differs from traditional plates and bowls particularly in size, as we don't want to serve a small portion of food on a huge plate," Matfin says. "We use small dishes with lids for serving soup or risotto, angled black dishes for desserts and cocktail glasses for lobster jellies."
The growing trend towards informal dining, and particularly the advent of grazing menus, is certainly influencing the traditional tabletop. Mintel, in its report on UK Menu Formats in December 2007, observed that although the original concept of grazing menus was adopted in reference to high-end restaurants as tasting menus, the term today tends to group together a wide range of concepts - such as small or large versions of the same dish, sharing platters and more snacking options.
"Over the past five years, there has been a trend to mix influences from different ethnic cuisines, especially with regard to sharing plates and the sampling of smaller dishes through the rise in popularity of tapas," says Paul Goodfellow, managing director of Continental Chef Supplies. "Sharing platters allow choice for two or more people, and the influence of Asian, Italian and Mexican food is clear. With regard to small dishes and miniature individual servings, tapas has been used as a basis not only for the food served but as a style of serving."
The company recognised this trend very quickly and now offers a comprehensive selection of products to fill this need, from Figgjo sharing platters to the RAK Allspice range of combination dishes, bowls and plates. Mini saucepans are also incredibly popular as a way of serving individual portions of sauce or vegetables, while the use of shot glasses and porcelain spoons has been in evidence for a while for canapé service.
Goodfellow says: "The market for less formal dining is more complex than it appears, as on the surface there is a desire to make diners feel more relaxed in the way they dine without losing the key messages of quality and skill." He advocates the use of natural materials such as wood, slate and marble for a relaxed, natural yet high-quality impact.
Versatility of product is key for Richard Gilbert, managing director of Gilberts Food Equipment. "Introducing dishes such as a mixed platter is a simple but effective way to offer customers that casual, yet intimate dining experience," he says. "Tableware for informal dining and sharing dishes needs to be versatile enough to cope with a variety of dishes - whether it be a selection of desserts, cheeses, a pizza or nachos." He says that, with a non-porous surface, heat-resistance to 175°C and a variety of sizes and colours, the Top Gourmet Boards supplied by Gilberts answer this need.
Various materials have been used in the manufacture of Steelite's Taste collection, developed in response to the increased demand for sharing dishes. The range features a selection of chargers, trays, bowls and dippers that are suited to serving popular cuisine such as tapas, meze and dim sum.
"Tableware designs have become much more universal to cater for the complete range of establishments and cuisine types," says Andrew Klimecki, head of design at Steelite. "This has been fuelled by the casualisation of the whole dining experience and changing consumer tastes."
The Mintel report goes on to say that the overall menu size in many restaurants seems to be growing, as new sections are added to suit the increasing numbers of reasons and motivations for consumers to eat out. Most notably, there tend to be more side options, be they a wider selection of salads or smaller versions of more substantial meals.
Key drivers for this trend are consumer demand and the recent hike in food prices, according to Vanessa Carter, new product development manager for Churchill China. "People want to go out for dinner and experience many different tastes and types of foods, as opposed to eating one large meal," she says. "Plus, as the price of raw ingredients is going up, portion control is becoming more and more important. Dishes that have eye-appeal and add character to the overall presentation of the meal are going to help increase the sales of food."
To this end, Churchill has recently introduced a new range called Bit on the Side, which includes several small dipping dishes, bowls for side orders, chip mugs and trendy jugs for sauces. Also, the company's new Art de Cuisine brand features the Igneous range, aimed at the more informal rustic dining market, with a collection of small dishes in a rustic stoneware glaze and a contrasting terra cotta body which work in multiples on carriers made of acacia wood.
Style issues apart, it is usually the type of cuisine that dictates the crockery used, says Christine Emerson, marketing manager for John Artis. "Most people will be familiar with tapas these days," she says, "and this is a good illustration of where smaller plates and bowls will be required.
"Naturally, such establishments are looking for chinaware to complement their relaxed theme and portion sizes. Manufacturers have responded with a plethora of different shapes. Tasting spoons, as in our Isola range, are becoming very popular. Four of these, placed on an asymmetrical oblong plate, make a very attractive presentation."
However, Goodfellow warns that you should always remember that the food comes first. "Don't just follow a presentation fashion if your food doesn't fit it," he says. "If your food does not suit a relaxed style of presentation, it could end up looking like Gordon Brown in shorts and a T-shirt - and none of us would like to see that, would we?"
- Continental Chef Supplies 0800 988 8981 www.chefs.net
- Churchill China 01782 524367 www.churchillchina.com
- Dudson 01782 819337 www.dudson.com
- Gilberts Food Equipment 0845 230 0681 www.topgourmet.co.uk
- John Artis 020 8391 5544 www.johnartis.co.uk
- RAK Porcelain Europe 01252 673248 www.rakporcelain.com
- Steelite International 0800 7833 5483 www.steelite.com
- Villeroy and Boch 020 8871 0011 www.villeroy-boch.com