When diners visit Blue Hill at Stone Barns in rural upstate New York, they aren’t dropping by for a three-olive martini and a trio of courses. An evening here means four hours, countless plates and several surprise adventures: there might be a course in the kitchen, or pizzetta served in what was once the manure shed – now a candlelit barn full of cress and nasturtium beds. And here, a new way of eating calls for a new look to the table.
For Blue Hill’s visionary co-owner and chef Dan Barber, dining is about details and modernity. His restaurant made it into The World’s 50 Best Restaurants earlier this year, and to use prosaic white crockery and once-faddish slate or miniature bread boards for all his dishes would seem pedestrian. Instead, Barber’s food is often served on a variety of ceramics commissioned from like-minded local artisans, designed with the Blue Hill aesthetic in mind. Glazed tiles ($120 for four) for bread are embedded with the pattern of Barber’s own-grown grain, and speckled pearlescent plates look like a ryokan twist on Anish Kapoor. And, as is now the case at the most innovative restaurants – from the Lake District to Tokyo – if you loved what your dinner was presented on, you can own it.
Many kitchen drawers will be full of David Mellor’s Odeon cutlery (£72 for six pieces) after an encounter with it at The River Café or Skye Gyngell’s Spring; being able to buy the tableware that was developed specifically for a much-revered restaurant dining room is the next logical step. Dine at Château Cordeillan-Bages, one of the most celebrated Relais & Châteaux properties in France, and you can buy a pair of the plates (€269) that owner Jean-Michel Cazes commissioned for the restaurant from the Limoges-based Bernardaud factory, which uses viticultural illustrations by interior designer Anne Monique Bonadei. If you liked the customised ceramics – featuring crowned skulls in an ornate gold ring – that the côte de boeuf-for-two came with at Jason Atherton’s new restaurant, The Clocktower, in New York, then you can order them, or your own variation (from $35), from Oregon-based Yvonne Angioletti of WTF Porcelain. “It’s a reference to Henry VIII,” says Atherton, “to gluttony and decadence. I wanted it to be a talking point. I want the guest to have fun.” When that dish and those plates arrive, with horn-handled steak knives ($25 each) from Roost that are markedly different from everything else that’s gone before, it sets an entirely different visual tempo – something you may well want to recreate at home. It’s chic as well as fun.
Dishes at Lake District restaurant L’Enclume aren’t just award-winning – they represent a lifestyle. And while diners might not be able to prepare the ox in coal oil that is a paradigm of chef Simon Rogan’s style, they can still buy a set of the same wonderfully wonky plates and bowls (from £33) with deliberately broken edges and cups and saucers (from £10) that Rogan uses at his restaurants. You can even visit their manufacturer, Paul Mossman, at his studio in Derbyshire to buy them. Mossman started out by making pieces for Quaglino’s and Bibendum, and his work has narrative as well as style. The langoustine pots he makes for The French, Rogan’s Manchester restaurant, are similar to those at L’Enclume, “but I based the design on a cotton bobbin, linking it to Manchester’s industrial past,” he says. “It’s a two-way street with creativity,” Rogan says. “We like to work with like-minded people and companies who understand our style. We eat with our eyes, and visually striking plates are so important.”
The designs that come out of these and other award‑winning restaurants are striving to match the flavours, yet the most appealing are understated and considered rather than showy. The plate still serves as the canvas. “Jono Pandolfi’s work elevates everything, but it also manages to be subtle,” says chef Daniel Humm, of the ceramicist he and restaurateur Will Guidara use for both Eleven Madison Park and NoMad. “Our initial goal was to create a line that was elegant and refined, yet reasonably humble,” says Guidara. “By using only Pandolfi’s stoneware, we make the meal a single narrative.” Pandolfi spent considerable amounts of time at both Manhattan locations for research and development. “I made more than 50 unique designs [seven-piece setting, $176] for Eleven Madison Park,” he says. “We were creating for every phase of the meal – from amuse-bouches to broth; it was a super-forward way of thinking.” It’s the textures that will make you want Pandolfi’s work at home as much as anything: the internal glaze on a stoneware cup ($32) contrasts with its matte raw exterior. It’s a pleasing sensation to drink from as well as look at.
There is a naïve, rustic style to a lot of the tableware created for these most directional of chefs. Pandolfi calls his handmade stoneware “minimal and earthy” – it is perfectly imperfect. It’s the same with many of the Joan plates (from $55), the glazed white on dark brown clay-footed bowls (from $55) and earthenware baskets with leather handles ($150) produced by Brooklyn-based studio Mondays for Blue Hill. “Everything is made using a slab roller, or pinching and coiling and carving,” says Jennifer Fiore, who co-runs the studio with Nina Lalli. The irregularity makes each piece unique. The bread plates that Dana Brandwein Oates of dbO Home creates for Barber are also all one of a kind. “We roll grain and wheat from the farm directly into the porcelain,” she says. “You can really feel the craftsmanship in each one.” Barber also uses pieces from the dbO Home Honeycomb Collection (from $24), featuring a self-explanatory and subtle pattern taken from real honeycomb.
The local nature of this craft speaks very much of the farm-to-table ethos of the chefs who commission it, and amplifies it. When guests stay at The Point in the Adirondacks – originally an upstate New York lakeside camp for the Rockefellers, now one of the most luxurious Relais & Châteaux resorts in the world – they eat breakfast from stoneware (from $4 for ramekins; from $14 for plates) in earthy colours with a pearlescent sheen, recently commissioned from local potter Andrea Hill. It’s glamorous but rustic – very Adirondacks.
Some of this pared-back style could be described as Japanese-influenced, or harking back to the likes of Lucie Rie, a master British potter of the mid-20th century (Rie was, tellingly, a phenomenon in Japan, where ceramics are seen as integral to both history and culture). It certainly suits Asian-style cuisine. The Bizen pottery, available to commission (from £200) from Mayfair’s Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant Umu, is designed and thrown by chef Yoshinori Ishii himself. “I did it because I couldn’t find what I wanted in terms of texture and pattern in the UK,” he says. It was a similar story for Café Boulud’s executive chef in New York, Aaron Bludorn, who recently struggled to find the perfect bowl for a Vietnamese fish stew. But he knew exactly who to commission – his mother, the potter Kim B Bludorn. “I like her glazes and earth tones,” he says. “We wanted something that could give visual appeal to an otherwise very simple-looking dish, while suiting its exotic flavours.” The bowls ($44) are now a part of Bludorn’s to-order business.
The fusion of different culinary styles often dictates the design of a plate. Paul Qui is the most famous chef in the vibrant Austin food scene right now, known for mixing delicate Japanese elements with the Filipino cuisine he grew up with, along with the muscular Americana of down-home Texas. When he approached local ceramicist Keith Kreeger to create bespoke pieces for his modish fine‑dining space Qui, he cooked a spectrum of dishes for Kreeger to connect with. “Kreeger is a very intuitive artist,” says Qui, “and I’m a very intuitive cook, so things evolved organically.” The range is exclusive to the restaurant but similar pieces (such as the Hudson dinnerware place setting, from $225) can be bought from Kreeger – they are so similar, in fact, that some have also subsequently appeared on the tables of Qui alongside the commissioned dinnerware. It is, as Kreeger says, “clean, contemporary porcelain, with a handmade aesthetic”. The pieces are neutral, with a thin but dramatic circular black line that bleeds like blotted black ink on vellum; they conjure up elements of urban hipster craft, as well as kaiseki, and are quietly radical future classics.
Tableware like this, which brings an element of surprise, can really fix the magic of a great meal in the memory. If you are one of the 16 diners at any given sitting at maverick chef Magnus Nilsson’s Fäviken Magasinet, the fairytale 18th-century barn in the wilds of northern Sweden, the biggest visual punch comes with the arrival of the “retired dairy cow” dish – a slice of protein that puts the rich aroma of a butcher’s shop directly onto your tongue. You cut through it with a knife and fork so stunning that you can’t help but spend a minute twisting and turning them in the light: the steel is rich with hallucinatory pattern, like liquefied tree bark. “I made a chef’s knife two years ago,” says craftsman Tobbe Lundström, “and last summer Magnus asked me to make his new steak cutlery. I use Swedish powder steel, which has amazing sharpness and durability, and Nordic birch burl for the handles. For some of my other knives, I use oak taken from old wrecked ships in the Baltic Sea.” Lundström makes similar pieces to order (900 euros each). Having a set at home brings back the magic of an evening at Fäviken with Proustian aplomb.
For some restaurateurs, the quest for the right tableware can be taken almost as seriously as the experimentation in the kitchen. At Blue Hill one project started with an odd request from a guest. “A woman wanted to buy one of our antique glass decanters for her husband’s 50th birthday,” says co-owner and design director Laureen Barber. “I had no idea where they were from, so I went on a mission to find one just like it. I couldn’t, so we started having them made and selling them.” Shortly afterwards came the collaborations with dbO Home and Mondays (ceramic ware, from $65). But Barber doesn’t have everything she wants for the restaurant just yet. That Fäviken “retired dairy cow” moment may be just around the corner. “I want the perfect cutlery,” she says. “And we want to make sure it’s made by someone local. We haven’t found them yet, but I’m looking, and we will. And it will be perfect.”