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Wednesday, Apr 24 1996
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Gold-Plate Special
Most of us trundle out the fine china (assuming we have any) only on holidays and other special occasions, but some restaurants use it every day. According to Nancy Oakes of Boulevard, restaurants that use high-end china tend to be "lower volume and more expensive" -- such as the French Laundry, in the Napa Valley town of Yountville.

Though fine china is "definitely more costly and more fragile" than earthenware, says the French Laundry's general manager, Laura Cunningham, the restaurant's customers "are aware of the quality" of the tableware and expect it. "We're a fine-dining restaurant," she says.

As for the breakage rate, Cunningham says "it's not that high. The staff definitely know what they're working with." The dishes are washed in a standard restaurant machine, but they're not stacked, and "there are fewer plates per load" than there would be at a more volume-intensive place.

(Side note: The French Laundry's cutlery is, not surprisingly, real silver, washed and polished by hand.)

According to John Caputo, co-owner of Socca Restaurant in the Richmond, diners are "not necessarily conscious" of the plates they're eating from. "You don't walk in and say, 'Look at that expensive china!' But it does add subliminally to the atmosphere of the dining room."

In the case of Socca, that wasn't necessarily a good thing. "We probably spent a little more than we should have" on expensive German china, says Caputo. (And they lost about $4,000 worth of it when a badly installed shelf collapsed.) "We're a bistro, and we're leaning more toward bistroware. It costs less, and it takes less to make it look perfect. Restaurants are always shuffling and stacking plates, and china shows more scratches than earthenware. Also, repeated washing dulls china."

China and porcelain are basically two names for the same heat-fired mix of quartz, kaolin, and feldspar, says Leo Dreyer, owner of Heritage House. When Marco Polo returned from China with translucent tableware, his countrymen described the new substance as porcellana -- Italian for "seashell."

Bone china (made mainly in England by such companies as Wedgwood and Royal Doulton; the makers on the Continent concentrate on standard porcelain) consists of 50 percent bone ash -- animal bones ground to a powder and used like clay, according to Dreyer. "It gives a purer white color," he says.

Bone china doesn't cost any more than regular china, but any porcelain is considerably more expensive than earthenware, costing up to twice as much, according to Caputo. That's a small fact to keep in mind the next time you hear a crash in a restaurant's kitchen. The price of atmosphere can be high.

By Paul Reidinger

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Paul Reidinger

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