Tablecloths used to be shorthand for serious restaurant. But when Gourmet Traveller's Restaurant of the Year, Quay, reopened after a blockbuster renovation, the absence of white linen covering tables sparked controversy. The number of comments made online by our readers had GT staffers asking whether the presence of tablecloths is really a mark of a great restaurant in 2018.
The no camp
Not really, is the attitude of John Fink, creative director of The Fink Group, which runs Quay.
"A clothless table in fine dining is not a new thing: either today with restaurants such as Noma, or in the Tudor times of the 16th century," he says. By ditching the tablecloths, he believes the restaurant has "a more organic look and feel". It certainly is a good way to show off the Tasmanian spotted gum tables, which were made especially for Quay by Planet Furniture's Ross Longmuir.
The move also saves the restaurant $100,000 a year. "There are also less staff costs with laying out tables and ironing," Fink says. But the money still gets deployed elsewhere and there are still napkins to launder. Nevertheless, "it's a good payoff".
At Melbourne's Attica, Ben Shewry takes a more open approach.
"I think it's very much an individual thing, not one size or one tablecloth fits all," he says. "For us, we want flexibility with our dining room space, so we have about a 50/50 split of tables with tablecloths and tables with granite tops from Harcourt in Victoria."
Tablecloths also come in handy when you need to play restaurant Tetris and rearrange tables to suit the bookings you have. A well-deployed piece of linen easily transforms two tables-for-two into a table for four seamlessly.
"We need the flexibility, so we can be at capacity each night," the chef says.
That convenience comes at a cost. "It certainly is significant, and you pay for what you get with tablecloths," he says. "It's a fair amount of work in addition to the cost of hiring them each day. We need to fit, iron, starch and check for imperfections and marks."
But do they make a place seem stuffier?
"I don't think tablecloths have much influence on the atmosphere. I think that's more an attitude set out by staff and management," says Shewry.
The yes camp
For Matt Moran, who runs Aria in Sydney and Brisbane, tablecloths are a non-negotiable. Sure, it costs more than $200,000 a year to keep the linens laundered, but that doesn't deter him from making them a feature of his restaurants.
"Aria has always been at the top end of fine-dining and we want to keep it that way," he says. "So while others have moved away from tablecloths, we've seen no need to change it.
"The magic of a great dining experience is about exceeding expectations with each element overall: the food, wine, staff and service, the location, the design of the space – it's the total package," he says. "For a lot of people, dining at Aria is a special occasion or celebration, so it's important we show them a good time and ensure it's special. The tablecloth is just one of many aspects that help set the scene."