Granny’s stuff never looked so good.
“The big white plate has had a heck of a run,” says Clark Wolf, a nationally known restaurant consultant based in New York and California, who explains that the rage for white plates originated in 1980s California. “It’s probably not going anywhere, but it has some new friends and some old friends.”
Couples are changing the assortment of china they are registering for. “People are mixing and matching more,” says Alyssa Longobucco, style and planning editor at the Knot, a wedding website and marketplace. “Couples want their home to feel unique, and they like things that have history. They want something more than going to a big-box store and buying 50 pieces of white china.” She cites a renewed interest in family history. “Five or 10 years ago,” she says, “you would hear ‘I’m me and I’m modern and I don't want any of that froufrou old world stuff.’ Now they want middle ground.” Even stores such as Anthropologie, Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s are offering dinnerware made to look old or worn.
At Maydan, one of Washington’s hottest eateries, the interiors are what co-owner Rose Previte calls “midcentury modern meets the Middle East.” The mood extends to the previously owned dinnerware culled from around the world and used in a crazy quilt of table settings. “With social media, you’re constantly looking for ways to make the food look pretty,” says Previte, who searches for old ceramic tea pots, copper serving platters, and blue-and-white pottery at flea markets and thrift shops when she travels. “The dishes express who you are, whether at a restaurant or your home.” Previte also is a big fan of repurposing. “I like things that come with good energy,” she says. “The plates come in here with their own story.”
Elle in Mount Pleasant, which opened a year ago, is a cozy bistro, bakery and bar with stacks of vintage plates and barware. You might find the buttermilk biscuits displayed on a 1940s flowered platter and your chicken soup ladled into an old soup bowl picked up at the Georgia Avenue Thrift Store. Co-owner Nick Pimentel says the menu and decor were inspired by his wife’s grandmother Eleanor, who retired to New Hampshire and was known for her pies and vegetable garden.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘grandma chic,’ but it was part of our design concept,” Pimental says. Reacting to what he called the “sterile or industrial feel” of nearby eateries, he wanted a less stuffy look. “We wanted to make it more warm, friendly, cozy and neighborly,” he says. He says 80 percent of the dishes are vintage, many with casual, country patterns. Some were picked up for less than a dollar apiece at thrift shops and antique stores; some were “donations that came in from our friends and family.”
Sets of formal china generally haven’t been in demand recently, and, as formal entertaining has waned, many downsizing boomers have gotten rid of theirs. But tablescapes using older dishes are making a comeback in homes as well.
Replacements in North Carolina is a retailer of vintage and modern tableware, with more than 11 million pieces in its inventory. The “vintage” shop on its website is doing a brisk business. According to Julie Robbins, a Replacements marketing specialist, old china arrives at the facility every day. “There are a lot of new uses for it. Vintage plates elevate the look of a table setting; it’s not generic yet is affordable,” she says.
“It’s more homey to mix up your china, especially if you have 10 people over for dinner and you don’t have 10 of everything,” says Liz Curtis, chief executive and founder of Table + Teaspoon, a nationwide tableware rental service. She is introducing six new tableware packages in the next few months, and three will focus on pattern play. “The table setting sets the tone for the evening,” says Curtis, who encourages customers to mix in family pieces with rentals. “If your guests walk in and it looks like you spent time curating the table, it makes them think they are having an elevated experience.”
St. Anselm, a classy new tavern in Washington’s Union Market neighborhood, has a lodge-y feel and is decorated with a collection of fezes, old rugs and taxidermy. The tableware is just as retro: commemorative Kennedy and Bush plates, English transferware dotted with pheasants, and gilt-edged porcelain banquet plates.
Randi Sirkin, vice president of creative services for the Starr Restaurants group, of which St. Anselm is a part, worked with restaurant partner Joe Carroll on the details. “I’m always looking for vintage things for our restaurants on eBay, Etsy or antique stores. Frederick was a great source of stuff,” Sirkin says.
“I do think that restaurants inspire people’s own place settings,” she says. “We show it’s fun to play with all of these plates and flatware and think outside the box.”
Some restaurants looking for vintage, however, have found that newer can be better. At Fancy Radish on H Street NE, a cocktail mixed of bourbon, sherry and chai called Woodmaze is served from the bar in a rose-patterned floral teacup and saucer. “We saw Washington as a bit of a fancier place, and our restaurant wanted to capture the feeling of a tea party in an English garden,” says co-owner Kate Jacoby. They started with vintage teacups but found them a bit too fragile and instead found a new bold floral design by Brew to A Tea on Amazon that was perfect. Sometimes patrons are surprised their cocktail comes in a dainty cup. “It does look like tea and you expect it to be hot, but it isn’t,” Jacoby says. “To be drinking a boozy cocktail out of a teacup is a cool change-up.”
Robbins of Replacements advises that you not be hasty about dumping an heirloom china set. “People are moving back in the direction of keeping something inherited from family. The challenge is that they are spending longer parts of their adulthood in small quarters, so it’s hard to keep the whole set of china,” she says. Her suggestion: Keep a few pieces you know you’ll use; donate or sell the rest. This allows you to enjoy the memories the pattern evokes, yet “no longer resent the space the whole set takes up in your closet.”