Ten thousand dollars is a pretty hefty restaurant bill.
In this case, though, the tab won’t be delivered to a black card-dropping guest with very expensive taste in wine. It will be going to chef Marisa Iocco, new co-owner of Spiga, an Italian restaurant she’s reopening in Needham this fall after a head-to-toe revamp. Iocco is planning to drape Spiga with classic white tablecloths or table runners during dinner, and she’s estimated that full linen service for the 95-seat restaurant could run about five figures annually.
That’s a whole lot of Chianti.
“A bare table is like being naked,” Iocco says. “The white tablecloth is like dressing in an Armani suit.”
On a personal level, Italian-born Iocco actually prefers her tables au naturel. But she knows that for many Americans, there’s a symbolic significance to the white tablecloth format: It sets a tone and suggests certain expectations. For what she wants to accomplish, she says it’s worth the cost.
She’s not alone in feeling that way. Yes, white tablecloths have disappeared from many dining rooms in recent years, alongside other classic hallmarks of fine dining (au revoir, maître d’s). As a new generation of tatted, telegenic chefs and TV personalities— even those at the top of their culinary craft—have traded crisp linens for exposed tables handcrafted from reclaimed Vermont barn wood, younger diners have slapped the white tablecloth with a stodgy reputation and tossed it to the wayside.
But Iocco is among several restaurateurs who have revived the white linen look for their latest ventures, joining stalwart institutions that refuse to waver in the face of an anti-tablecloth trend. While this may not signal a reversal of turned tides, these new restaurants certainly offer a renewed argument for celebrating some of the symbolic and practical benefits of the old-school table setting—even as they help court newer crowds with complementary casual, mediating touches.
“Somewhere along the way, the white tablecloth became a sacrificial lamb to democratize dining,” says chef Michael Pagliarini. “It wasn’t about the tablecloth itself. It was a symbolic thing. It was about getting rid of the baggage that went with it: the associations with stuffiness and pretension.”
“But the white tablecloth can really be a wonderful aesthetic touch,” he says. “It’s a consideration as important as fresh flowers, that gets back to how we experience food alongside design.”
Benedetto. Photo Credit: Erik Jacobs.
You won’t find white tablecloths at Pagliarini’s beloved first restaurant Giulia, but you will at Benedetto, the new Italian destination he opened in Harvard Square’s Charles Hotel in November. Different concepts beget different crowds: Giulia tends to lure neighborhood types and in-the-know foodies, while Benedetto serves a captive audience of international high-end hotel guests and Ivy League-level power brokers from political, academic and artistic communities. Benedetto’s rustic-chic design was inspired by Umbrian farmhouses, and while Pagliarini kept wood tables bare in the front lounge, he wanted the main dining room to benefit from the sumptuous, tactile tone-setting of the linens.
“When you run your fingers across the tablecloth, there’s the feeling that something has been pressed and set just for you,” he says. “There are enough places out there that are full of energy with loud music, dim lights and hard surfaces. I liked the idea of having an adult dining room where you can really enjoy a conversation.”
Mooncusser Fish House. Photo Credit: John Skibbee
In fact, with noise levels being one of the more common complaints from diners, improved acoustics are one of the major practical reasons for taking the white tablecloth route, says Ian Calhoun, owner of Mooncusser Fish House. The seafood-focused restaurant opened in Back Bay in July, and a more casual, lower-level space, dubbed Moon Bar and designed with lunch crowds and after-work wine sippers in mind, followed in August. But Mooncusser’s main third-floor dining room feels more intimate and formal. Calhoun wanted to keep the design simple and free of distractions so that guests can focus attention on the most important things: one another, and the food.
White tablecloths, he says, help absorb the sound of clinking and clanging. And they also offer a “blank canvas” that lets the presentation of a plate, and the work of a highly visual chef, really shine.
“We wanted to pull the focus inward,” Calhoun says. Overhead lighting that individually illuminates each table helps too. “When you have some really cool table made of reclaimed wood, that’s already interesting in itself. You add a lot of noise, a lot of wall decor, and it adds up to a lot of intrigue.”
Hence why the white tablecloth, like any staple piece, won’t go out of fashion. “There are ebbs and flows,” Calhoun says. “But I don’t think it ever goes away.” Maybe not, but there’s increased emphasis on the ebbs. In recent years, restaurants’ white linen use has been “flat or slightly down” says Frank Gianci, owner of Metropolitan Linen, which processes about 250,000 pounds of laundry each week for around 800 restaurant customers in five states, about 37 percent of whom use some kind of tablecloth—mostly white. He’s noticed that new restaurants are trending downscale, eschewing classic options for more casual variations like bistro napkins with a stripe of bold color.
“You’re seeing newer restaurants stay away from traditional white,” Gianci says. “But if you’re a steakhouse, a higher-end French restaurant or somewhere where you’re paying a hundred dollars a head, I still don’t think you can get away with that.”
He likely wouldn’t want them to. The linen business isn’t exactly a bad one: Gianci estimates that linen service usually accounts for between 1 and 2 percent of a restaurant’s annual costs. That sounds about right to Mark D’Alessandro, general manager of Mistral, the flagship of the fine dining-oriented Columbus Hospitality Group that also counts Ostra and Sorellina among its tablecloth-clad restaurants. D’Alessandro figures that linen service accounts for about 1.5 percent of operating expenses for the restaurant. It’s worth it, he says. Though the restaurant group is preparing to open a new casual bistro, Bar Lyon, it’s still committed to the white tablecloth format at its first baby.
“A few years ago, after seeing that a lot of finer restaurants were moving away from white tablecloths, we considered removing them here,” D’Alessandro says. “We decided against it. It would have completely changed the look, the feel and the concept we’re trying to accomplish.”
Comfort is the main reason why Chris Campbell, owner of Troquet on South, never considered dropping the white tablecloth format of the original Troquet, long lauded for its extensive fine wine list, when he opened the Leather District spinoff of the similarly named, now-shuttered restaurant that once bordered Boston Common. “When a new restaurant opens, our regular customers go out to try it. But they keep coming back to us,” Campbell says. “With new places opening all the time, there’s something to be said for maintaining consistency.”
The new location does boast a bigger bar area with linen-free seating, something that feels more accessible and inviting to younger crowds—and makes sense, given the relative cost. “Our table linens can cost from six to nine dollars to get serviced,” Campbell estimates. “If someone wants to sit in the dining room for a burger and a glass of water, we’re paying more than it’s worth.”
Though it’s often assumed that the traditional trappings of fine dining are only of interest to older diners, some restaurateurs resuscitating white tablecloths actually think the format—and the added air of sophistication it connotes—can feel exciting to guests for whom the classic approach is, ironically, less familiar.
Les Sablons. Photo Credit: Emily Hagen
That’s the case in the eyes of restaurateur Garrett Harker, whose latest venture, the Continental cuisine-focused Les Sablons, rolled out the white linens when it opened in Harvard Square in April. Harker says the sense of “weight” of the historic location—Les Sablons is housed within Cambridge’s big, brick Conductor’s Building, an administrative headquarters for the former elevated railway—dictated the look and feel of the bi-level interior. The downstairs feels like a sleek cocktail spot, a bit swankier than its sibling Island Creek Oyster Bar. The upstairs is unmistakably high-end, Manhattan-chic with a bit of playfulness, including a black-and-white photo of a smoldering David Bowie framed by Play-Doh tubs. It’s white tablecloth dining that won’t put off those raised on the rock-star chef scene.
“We tried to find a certain balance,” Harker says. “We had to balance a little nostalgia, a little bit of why we fell in love with this industry and a little bit of our core clientele, with thinking a lot about the next generation. There’s an opportunity with millennials who are embarking on their careers and haven’t had a lot of experience or exposure to these restaurants.”
And whatever the ups and downs, the white tablecloth is ultimately not going away completely. After all, where some see formality, others just see comfort and familiarity.
“We never considered taking away the white tablecloth,” says Chris Glionna, director of operations for the upscale Aquitaine Group. The team’s eponymous flagship reopened last year after a modernizing makeover, but the tablecloths remained. In fact, the group also added white linens to the Lynnfield location of its Gaslight brasseries, finding that the look was preferred even in the more casual—per conventional wisdom, anyway—suburbs. Glionna says that less formal aesthetic touches, like Aquitaine-branded dinner plates, and friendly service mediate any stuffy associations with the look.
“I think there’s a level of familiarity that’s especially important to people right now in uncertain times,” Glionna says. “They want to eat food that is comforting in a space that brings back great memories.”