Restaurant Dinnerware Buyers' Guide
The dinnerware you select for your restaurant can impact everything from kitchen operations to dishroom efficiency to customer opinions. However, the wide range of options available can make it difficult for even the most experienced restaurateurs to know exactly which choices are best for their businesses. Below, we break down the types of commercial dinnerware available to help you make informed choices.
The material your restaurant's dinnerware is made from will determine its durability as well as how it should be handled by staff. It will inform what you can do with it, such as microwaving or finishing in a salamander. The dinnerware's material will also affect what your customers expect from your restaurant. Below are the common dinnerware materials and their typical uses.
Most plastic dinnerware is constructed from polycarbonate, though there are also some items made of Styrene Acrylonitrite. Also known as SAN, this material is often used for plates and cups made to look like plastic, while polycarbonate is usually opaque. Plastic is break-resistant and will not shatter like glass, though it will discolor over time or when used with staining ingredients. It is some of the most economical dinnerware available, making it ideal for use in quick-service restaurants, cafeterias, and buffets.
Melamine, which is made out of a mixture of plant cellulose and plastic resin, is one of the most common dinnerware choices due to its low price point and extreme durability. Restaurant dinnerware made from melamine is lightweight, making it easy for servers to handle, and is often available in a wide variety of colors and patterns. Melamine is sensitive to heat and will crack and blister if used in a salamander, under heat lamps, or in a microwave. It can be sanitized in a warewasher, but should not be cleaned with anything containing bleach. Melamine is known for being very durable and providing a long service life, and is commonly used in casual restaurants, healthcare settings, and hotels.
China dinnerware, also known as porcelain, runs the gamut between thick-bodied stoneware to fine china. While these options are generally more breakable than plastic and melamine, they are usually associated with higher quality. While the heavier pieces are cheaper, they can be more difficult for severs to carry all day. The lighter porcelain pieces are fully vitrified, allowing them to be durable despite their light weight. The most expensive option, used by fine dining establishments, is fine china. All china must be handled carefully, but the glaze prevents staining. Most china is microwave and dishwasher safe, and much of it can be used in salamanders and under heat lamps. China dinnerware is ideal for use in full-service and fine-dining restaurants.
"China" is often used as a catch-all term, for several types of dinnerware that are all made of clay, but are processed differently. The least processed option is earthenware, a thick and porous material. Because it is porous, it requires a coat of glaze to ensure it is food safe. Stoneware is similar, but its thinner construction is slightly more refined. Porcelain, the strongest and thinnest type of china available, is often used in fine-dining restaurants. Bone china is a special subset of porcelain that uses bone ash to give it a milky white appearance and make the final product less brittle, but its high price point tends to limit its use to all but the most high-end dining establishments.
Once you determine which material will best suit your restaurant, you must decide which specific pieces you need, choices largely guided by your menu. For example, if you do not offer soup, you likely won't need to purchase soup bowls as part of your tabletop array. Below are some of the most common pieces to consider.
Plates are the vehicles used for serving a large majority of foods, so it's important to find the right ones. Dinner plates are large enough to serve entrees, often with space left for side dishes. Salad plates are a bit smaller, and the smallest plates are intended for bread and butter, desserts, and other small side dishes. Plates are available with rims of varying widths, with wider rims usually used in more formal settings, but coupe plates with no rims are also available for a more contemporary appearance.
Platters are often used for serving large entrees or appetizers, and can also be used for serving foods like whole roasts in family-style dining. These are available in traditional oval and round, as well as in rectangular and asymmetrical shapes. Like plates, these can have formal wide rims, narrow rims, or can be made in the coupe style with no rims at all.
Bowls are available in a huge variety of sizes, from 2-ounce fruit bowls to serving bowls with capacities exceeding 100 ounces. Some common choices are shallow pasta bowls and deeper soup bowls. Most bowls are round, but some oval and square designs are available. Many dinnerware patterns include bowls that match the plates to help bring the tabletop together.
Saucers are less common on modern tabletops, but they are still used in formal settings and in restaurants that specialize in tea and coffee. These small plates are made to coordinate with the tea and coffee cups with which they are used. They make it easier for servers to carry hot cups to tables, insulate the table from the heat of the drink, and catch drips and spills.
While many of these items are not considered dinnerware, they are often available as part of the dinnerware patterns to coordinate with the other tabletop pieces. However, not each of these will be available in every line or in each material.
- Tea and Coffee Supplies: These are most often considered drinkware, but are sometimes matched to dinnerware, especially in formal settings. Made to hold hot drinks like tea, coffee, and hot chocolate, tea and coffee cups are often thick-bodied, though bone china tea cups are thin and lightweight. Many operators who buy these pieces also choose to buy matching saucers. Tea pots are also sometimes available in the same styles as dinnerware.
- Creamers and Sugar Pots: Creamers and sugar pots are not always made to match dinnerware, as they are often a basic metal, plastic, or ceramic, but more formal sets of dinnerware often include drink accessories that match.
- Ramekins and Gravy Boats: Every restaurant should have a way to bring condiments to tables, and ramekins and gravy or sauce boats that. Like creamers, these are often basic, solid colors, but in some formal settings, operators prefer to match these pieces to their dinnerware.
- Salt and Pepper Shakers: Because these are always on tabletops, choosing the right salt and pepper shakers is important; cheap plastic shakers on a tabletop with fine china seem out of place. Because of this, some lines of dinnerware, from melamine up to fine china, offer matching salt and pepper shakers to help pull the tabletop décor together.