Food: Never mind the food, feel the napkins

Cutlery, flowers, linen, even ashtrays - the setting of a restaurant table is now as important as the meal. Marcus Field reports. Photographs by Adrian Fisk
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How do you judge a restaurant? Forget the food for a minute. And the service. And the people you went with. Not long ago that wouldn't have left you with much else. But today, the look of a restaurant - from the design of the space and the furniture, to the trophy ashtray - has subsumed almost every other consideration.

In fact, it is the minutiae, such as the things on the table, that have come to matter most. Because, just as clothes tell you something about the wearer, so the setting of a table tells you what sort of food and service you can expect.

According to James Soane, architect at Sir Terence Conran's design company, CDP, the table setting has now become a crucial part of the restaurant designer's remit. "We will do a presentation of `table top', including cutlery, plates, glasses," he says, "and then discuss what sort of message it gives out." Key signifiers for a particular sense of quality and tradition include candles, flowers and linen tablecloths. Once decisions have been made on these issues, it is up to the restaurateur or designer to find a way to make their place memorable. "What you are looking for," explains Soane, "is something to be delighted by".

And it is exactly these "delights" which are so tricky to get right. What starts off as a good idea can fast become vulgar, cliched or silly (think Quaglino's ashtrays, or puddings served in glass boxes at Hempel's I-Thai). It is, therefore, not surprising to find Oliver Peyton - owner of Mash, Coast and the Atlantic - taking these details so seriously. At Mash, his latest London restaurant, the retro-chic look has been carried right through to the pale-coloured lacquered tables and their settings.

"I hate having the same stuff as other restaurants," says Peyton. "We're trying to get into a position where all our things are exclusive." As a move in this direction, each Mash table features a green glass vase designed by architect Andrew Martin, with a single orange gerbera. But do the customers notice? "I think people really appreciate it," says Peyton. "These details give the place an edge."

At a time when even top restaurant menus barely seem to differ and chefs flit from one establishment to another, perhaps it's true that it is the cool plates, fashionable flowers or coveted cutlery that keep the crowds coming. But James Soane has a warning: "Sometimes it just gets too uptight or bourgeois," he says. "And then you want to go to a cafe where you get different plates and nothing matches. Suddenly that seems authentic."

Royal China 13 Queensway, London W2 (0171-221 2535). Right on the main drag of cosmopolitan Queensway, this vast oriental restaurant seats up to 200 people. Although falling far short of minimalism, Royal China's take on Far Eastern aesthetics is more refined than most high-street versions. Tablecloths and napkins are plain, and food (a mixture of authentic Chinese cuisines) is served on white Wedgwood plates. But a Chinese restaurant wouldn't be right without something kitsch and fancy on the table, so flower displays are flamboyant and big gilded spoons are provided so you can serve yourself from the lazy Susan in the centre.

Table, pounds 50, chair, pounds 25, both made in Hong Kong; linen hired from UCL; cutlery, pounds 8 per setting; glasses, pounds 3.50; florist, Sally Ool, pounds 200 per week; matches, The Imperial Match Company. Average price of dinner for two plus wine, pounds 60

Pukkabar and Curry Hall 42 Sydenham Road, London SE26 (0181-778 4629). This recently opened restaurant in the London suburb of Sydenham is a fresh take on the high-street Indian. Owned by Trevor Gulliver and designed by David Collins, the idea is to create an environment which avoids stereotypical Asian themes. Table settings are simple; cutlery is laid on heavy paper napkins and there are no cloths. The crockery is white with just two fine lines of colour. To this is added just a salt cellar and a branded ashtray. These are already beginning to disappear, which Gulliver has generously decided to take as a compliment.

Customised coffee tables and feature table, pounds 2,500 from Chris Elsworth; table and chairs from Country Beal; laundry, London Linen Company; cutlery by Menu; four-piece place setting from The Oriental China Company, pounds 1.75; glasses, JG Durand, from 90p; florist, local high-street store, pounds 60 per week; matches, Premier Match Company, pounds 428 per 5,000; porcelain tableware, Oriental China Company, from pounds 1 to pounds 19. Average price of dinner for two plus wine, pounds 30. Blakes 33 Roland Gardens, London SW7 (0171-370 6701). Anouska Hempel is getting a reputation as a bit of a joker. Before becoming famous for charging guests a fortune to stay in her temple of Zen at The Hempel, the former Bond girl was best known for Blakes, her more decorative establishment in swanky SW7. The food is a fashionable blend of Thai and European and table-setting is upmarket cruise liner; black and gold plates and linen with a whopping great big artichoke for decoration.

Prices on application from Emma Raynor at Anouska Hempel Design, 0171- 589 1657. Average price of dinner for two plus wine, pounds 120.

Wakaba 122a Finchley Road, London NW3 (0171-586 7960). Minimalism may be becoming cliched, but when this exquisite little Japanese restaurant opened on a busy north London thoroughfare in 1987 it seemed like a radical new concept. Designed by the leading exponents of the style, John Pawson and his then partner Claudio Silvestrin, the curved translucent glass front gives on to a dining room furnished with custom-made white-oiled beech tables. These are set with only linen napkins, ashtrays and chopsticks, the idea being that nothing should distract from the food or the serenity of the experience.

Table, Design Workshop, pounds 250; chair, Haus J Wegner, pounds 150; laundry, London Workwear, pounds 4,500 per year; cutlery, chopsticks; glasses, pounds 2.50; matches, The Imperial Match Company. Average price of dinner for two plus wine, pounds 60.

Nobu Metropolitan Hotel, 19 Old Park Lane, London W1 (0171-447 4747). A table reservation at Nobu, the Japanese restaurant tucked inside the tirelessly hip Metropolitan Hotel, is one of London's most sought-after commodities. Here, celebrities and wannabes pay the earth to be served at plain oak and maple tables simply set with wooden chopsticks, napkins and soy sauce pitchers. "There's no decoration," says manager Joe Perret, "so everything has to be very controlled. Once the tables are set we have to stand at the end of the room and make sure everything is symmetrical." Presumably, the fun is then in the people-watching, the colourful food and, finally, in messing up the carefully planned symmetry.

Table and chair, RHA Furniture, four-seater, pounds 1,588, two-seater, pounds 1,244; single chairs by Office Realisation, pounds 300; cutlery, La Porcellana; glasses, Chinacraft, from pounds 2.50 to pounds 15; napkins, supplied from Italy; florist, in-house; matches, 50,000 logo boxes used each year. Average price of dinner for two plus drinks pounds 120.

Indigo One Aldwych Hotel, 1 Aldwych, London WC2 (0171-300 1000). Recently opened at the hotel One Aldwych, Indigo is the talk of London's smarter restaurant-goers. Designed by owner Gordon Campbell Gray and Mary Fox Linton, the menu is modern American. Linen is arranged for individual place settings and both side plates and dinner plates are rectangular. Flowers at Indigo are a generous helping of red roses packed into a white oblong vase.

Chairs by Montis (Dutch); cutlery by Sambouet (French); glasses by David Michael Angelo (Italian); Irish linen by Ewart Liddell; florist, Stephen Woodham; matches, Merit. Average price of dinner for two plus wine, pounds 65.

Mirabelle 56 Curzon Street, London W1 (0171-499 4636). Marco Pierre White is considered by many to be Britain's classiest chef. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that he favours linen on his tables. It is perhaps rather unfortunate that the table settings in his posh Mayfair restaurant, Mirabelle, also feature a number of other rather predictable Michelin-starred staples. These include overly decorated flowery presentation plates and liquid-filled glass candle-holders.

Details not available: the unpredictable Marco Pierre White decided at the last minute not to supply them.

Mash 19-21 Great Portland Street, London (0171-637 5555). From the Atlantic and Coast, to branches of Mash in Manchester and London, restaurateur Oliver Peyton has always employed the hippest designers to create his celebrated brand of "super cool" interior. In Mash, the pale-coloured lacquered tables are set with carefully sourced German cutlery, American salt and pepper grinders and custom-designed green glass vases. A champagne bucket, by Mash architect Andrew Martin, in green glass and chrome, is, says Peyton, "the single best thing in there".

Table and two chairs, pounds 500, Atlantis (Italy); laundry costs, "too much"; cutlery, WMF, from 18p to pounds 1.89; glasses, Arcoroc, from 55p to 89p; florist, Chivers, pounds 500 per week; matches, Imperial Match Company, 9p per box. Average cost of dinner for two plus wine pounds 60.

Marcus Field is editor of `Blueprint' magazine. Additional research by Aoife O'Riordain