Buyers' Guide to Refreshing Your Restaurant's Table

Every restaurant owner wants the food to be the focus of customers' attention, but how that food is presented1 can have a huge impact on its taste. Presentation includes not only what the food itself looks like, but the serving pieces involved. The dinnerware, glassware, and flatware that make up the tabletop at your restaurant have an immediate effect on customers’ perceptions of the value they're receiving and will contribute to their overall experiences at your business.

In addition to selecting the tabletop items required when first opening a restaurant, operators must take some time every few years to evaluate how well those initial selections are working based on operational needs. We recommend evaluating your place settings every five to seven years, as a general rule of thumb. That process should also take into account current trends and customer feedback. Most operators know to take inventory of their tableware regularly and order to replenish their stock from broken or damaged items as needed, but neglecting to refresh your tabletop as needed can lead to worn items and an outdated appearance. A tabletop audit can help keep your restaurant up to date with current trends. It can also capture the interest of long-time customers who have grown accustomed to your outdated dinnerware, which in turn can have a direct effect on sales.2

Dinnerware

The plates and bowls your restaurant's foods are served on are intrinsically linked to that food in your customers’ minds; if the plates are outdated or worn, the customers’ perceptions of that can influence their first impressions of your food. These pieces are often the focus of your tabletop presentation, making their selection important to the ambience of your restaurant. Refreshing your tableware is one of the most economical and effective ways of giving your business a face lift, which can bring profitable results. The impact dinnerware can have on sales was seen recently at Italian fast-casual chain Fazoli's, where the CEO credits new dinnerware with a turnaround in food quality scores and more than three years of solid same-store sales growth.3

While white dinnerware has long been the go-to for restaurants, particularly fine dining establishments, the industry seems to be moving away from that mainstay.4 Where once round, white plates were the norm, many manufacturers are seeing sales co-opted by a wide variety of colors, materials, and shapes. When selecting dinnerware, be sure to consider the size of your restaurant's tables and how many pieces are in your place settings. Learn more about your options below.

GoodMelamineMelamine plates are the most economical option for the majority of restaurants. They are made of a durable resin that resists discoloration and damage, but should not be heated and in some cases can be stained by acidic foods like tomato sauce. These plates are available in a wide variety of patterns and colors. Melamine dishes are lightweight, making them easy to handle and best-suited to fast casual dining.
BetterCeramic: Porcelain and StonewareThis mid-grade dinnerware is most commonly seen in cafes, casual dining chains, and family restaurants. These are available in varying shades of white for more-traditional place settings, as well as patterns and colors for those looking to branch out a bit. Coupe styles, as well as those with thin to wide rims are available. The biggest difference between these dinnerware materials are their weights. Porcelain and stoneware are both durable options, but porcelain's strength is derived from being more refined and fired multiple times, while stoneware boasts a thicker body. This makes stoneware heavier and gives it a more earthy appearance, which may be desired in a farm-to-table concept. Porcelain is the only one of the two able to achieve a true bright white, though either can be finished with a range of colorful glazes.
BestFine ChinaFine china is the most costly dinnerware option available, a fact that is reflected in the thin, durable bodies and attractive designs available in this category. These are available in both traditional and modern shapes, and in white or with elegant designs. Bone china is the highest-grade dinnerware available, most often used in fine dining restaurants and hotels. These products have bone ash included in the clay during production and go through multiple firings to result in a durable, fully vitrified product that is entirely impermeable. However, despite being very durable considering the thin construction, fine china and bone china are the most fragile dinnerware options and should be handled with care.

Glassware

Much like dinnerware, the glassware you choose for your tabletop can have a direct effect on how customers perceive your restaurant. When it comes to glasses, the feel of the piece is just as important as the appearance; unlike dinnerware, which is most often handled by wait staff, the glassware will be handled by customers throughout the meal. Because these pieces are handled so often, you will need to balance cost with heft, feel, durability, and appearance when selecting the glassware for your restaurant. Also keep in mind that you will likely need more than one type of glass, especially if you offer beer, wine, and cocktails in addition to soft drinks.

GoodPlastic Drinking GlassesPlastic drinking glasses are durable and lightweight. These are most often made out of SAN plastic or polycarbonate, though durable Tritan plastic is steadily claiming more of the market. Plastic tumblers, cocktail glasses, beer mugs, wine glasses, and shot glasses are available in everything from crystal clear to colors, including red, blue, and amber. These are most commonly used in casual eateries and in outdoor bars where glassware is not allowed or its use is impractical. Many plastic glasses are stackable for easy storage.
BetterRestaurant GlasswareGlasses are the most common type of restaurant glassware. As the name suggests, these are made out of glass, and include cocktail, wine, tumbler, juice, and beer glasses, as well as beer mugs, goblets, and specialty glasses. Many glasses are made for a specific type of beer, wine, or cocktail, so bars and restaurants may need multiple glass shapes to serve all the drinks on their menus. Most of these glasses are clear, but some do have pops of color or are even fully colored, and many have designs that enable them to add to the restaurant's décor. Though we typically recommend not stacking glassware to prolong its lifespan and avoid scratching, some is designed to be stackable, but must still be transported and stored with care.
BestCrystal GlasswareCrystal glassware is associated with the most elegant of settings, but it has fallen out of common use in recent years. This is partly due to leaded crystal being perceived as dangerous and partially due to sleeker styles coming into fashion. However, modern crystal is made from perfectly safe metal oxides, and with vintage aesthetics coming back into style, crystal can fit very well into some fine dining décor. Wine glasses are the most common pieces of glassware that restaurants use that are made of crystal glass, but drinking and whiskey glasses, pilsners, cocktail glasses, and decanters are also available.

Flatware

Flatware is a small but important piece of your restaurant's tabletop. Like glassware, these utensils are handled by the customers throughout their meals, so the way they look and feel are important. All restaurant flatware will be made out of stainless steel, but the grade of that metal will determine its durability, as well as how polished it is and how well it will retain its shine over time. The grade of stainless steel used will also influence how heavy each piece of flatware is. Heavier flatware is generally perceived as being of higher quality by customers, and also helps provide a counterweight to food to make handling simpler. Heavier pieces are also less likely to bend under demanding applications, such as cutting through and lifting thick steaks.5 Flatware is often continuously replaced by operators, and individual pieces end up damaged or are accidentally thrown away or even pocketed by diners. As part of that replacement process, the pattern and type of flatware you purchase should be evaluated every few years to make sure it fits in with the theme the rest of your tabletop presents and to see if your budget allows for an upgrade that might not have been possible when you first selected it.

Good18/0 Flatware18/0 stainless steel flatware is the most economical choice available, made of an alloy that includes 18 percent chromium and no nickel. Because there is no nickel in these pieces, they usually have a matte finish, and any shine they have will wear off quickly. These are lightweight pieces that usually have a flat handle, which may have a design stamped into it. This grade of silverware is often thin and easily bent, which can mean it has to be replaced more often. These are often used by new restaurants on a tight budget and in casual restaurants.
Better18/8 FlatwareMid-grade flatware is made of 18/8 stainless steel, which contains 18 percent chromium and 8 percent nickel. These pieces are a bit heavier than 18/0 flatware, and the nickel content also makes these shinier and more capable of retaining that shine. These are available in a variety of patterns and usually feature thicker handles than the more economical options. These are a common choice in chain restaurants, family dining, and catering for high-end events.
Best18/10 FlatwareFlatware made with 18/10 stainless steel is the highest grade steel silverware available. These are available in a wide array of elegant designs, and usually provide some heft in the hand. Because these have 10 percent nickel content, they can also be polished to a high shine, and will retain that shine much better than the lower grades of flatware. These are most often used in high-end and fine dining restaurants, as the high polish can give the appearance of silver while still offering the easy maintenance of stainless steel.
  1. Does the Way We See Food Affect Its Taste? Huffington Post. Accessed June 2017.
  2. Impact of Tableware and Other Contextual Variables on Flavour Perception. BioMed Central. Accessed June 2017.
  3. This One Simple Change Revived Sales for Italian Chain. PMQ Pizza Magazine. Accessed June 2017.
  4. Plating: Choosing Dinnerware for Your Brand. Institute of Culinary Education. Accessed June 2017.
  5. Buying the Right Flatware for Your Restaurant. R Magazine. Accessed June 2017.