St. John, London
ELV note: The original of this article first appeared in John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet. Click here to read it in its original format, or continue perusing below.
Anyone who has dined out with me knows that, unless I’m eating at the proverbial hole in the wall, I tend to groan over the lack of what was once the simplest amenity in a restaurant: a tablecloth.
In the past, even a pizzeria or Chinese eatery would have tablecloths, and not just because it’s a nicety. There are very good reasons for it: as any epidemiologist will tell you, you can catch other people’s illnesses through skin contact as much as through sneezing or even kissing. So a barely wiped bare wooden or Formica table is a festering point for germs.
A tablecloth also provides brightness (unless it’s black) and a bonhomie that bare, cold, hard wood or plastic will always lack. Your hands don’t stick to cloth; drips and spills seep into it, not onto your clothes; a tablecloth also soaks up noise in a restaurant, while a hard surface bounces noise around; and a tablecloth is easily cleared and crumbed by a waiter, while cleaning a hard surface is awkward and ineffective. Esthetically speaking, a tablecloth is itself a design statement about the degree of luxury a restaurateur wants to manifest, whether the cloth is simple cotton, damask or embossed linen.
And, as the photos below show, a restaurant need not be “fussy” to have them. But, over the past five or so years, the absence of tablecloths in restaurants has been hailed as signaling the place is not “fine dining,” meaning pretentious, even if the cloth-less restaurant charges a small fortune for its food. Such restaurateurs call it a “design statement” when, in almost all cases, it is nothing more than a matter of trying to save money. And I admit that such laundry bills can mount up–tens of thousands of dollars per annum. But not using tablecloths doesn’t seem in any way to reduce the price of a meal at such restaurants. Believe me, your dinner is never cheaper because the restaurant doesn’t use tablecloths.
To those restaurateurs who have yanked the tablecloths from their tables, while insisting it’s part of their design statement, I respond that colorful plastic cups, knives and forks, and patterned paper napkins might well be a design statement too and would save them a lot more money, but we haven’t descended that low yet, except, maybe, on airplanes.
So, it was with some degree of satisfaction that I read The Daily Meal’s round-up of “The 101 Best Restaurants in Europe,” voted by noted chefs and food media (including myself), and found that the overwhelming majority are elegantly appointed with tablecloths. This is in complete contradistinction to Bon Appetit’s recent article on “The Best New Restaurants in America 2014,” which I wrote about in the Virtual Gourmet, wherein not one restaurant uses tablecloths.
Peruse The Daily Meal’s list and you’ll find that tablecloths are but a minor item in the details that make these places so respected: great chefs, great service, fine décor, good silverware and wine glasses, beautifully printed menus, well-dressed staff, great wine lists. These are the things that make them great.
So, when the American food media–and increasingly their London counterparts–declare that fine dining is all but dead and “white tablecloth restaurants are a thing of the past” where no one wants to eat any more, I invite anyone to try to book a table at any of these 101 stellar restaurants on short notice. Try for a week in advance, maybe a month.
One of the first to rip away the tablecloths was the Judge Judy of TV food competitions, Tom Colicchio, who this week announced he would open a new restaurant that would not have a formal setting because, he said, “I don’t think people are interested in eating like that anymore.” On the other hand, one of NYC’s finest chefs, Floyd Cardoz, has just opened White Street, with crystal chandeliers, tufted leather sofas, and white tablecloths, described by the owners as “classy old school New York ambiance.”
The truth is, fine dining–and tablecloths–are no more passé or dying than are the works of Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Charles Dickens or Tolstoy.
Now, of course, if the readers of the foodie media are the kind of people who feel ill at ease in a fine dining restaurant–remember Lucy ordering snails in Paris on “I Love Lucy”?–that’s their problem. For, if they learned a little more about fine dining and its attendant pleasures, including the softness of a thick tablecloth, they might well be converted. And get less splinters in the bargain.