Once while dining at a minimal-chic German restaurant in San Francisco, my date marveled at the elegant simplicity of the mid-century-modern salt and pepper shakers on our table.
Their simple blue color and proletarian design created a sort of hypnotic nostalgia for his childhood tableware. Did it enhance his dining experience? Certainly. Did it concern me when he persisted in fondling the salt and pepper shakers throughout the entire meal? Slightly.
Recently, restaurants have been stylishly translating the idea of home cooking, eschewing the cold, corporate mega-restaurant concepts of the late ’90s and exploring more personal, whimsical decor. Communal dining is a thriving trend in upscale establishments, and many chefs incorporate childhood favorites or “comfort food” on the menu, like grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate milkshakes (albeit with manchego and Valrhona chocolate).
Restaurants may successfully take inspiration from the concept of home cooking, but when the home cook tries to evoke the restaurant experience, the results can be mixed. People pimp their kitchens with professional-grade appliances, polished-granite work islands the size of Guam, and industrial refrigerators/freezers in homage to the “culinary” lifestyle, creating sterile mausoleums where spilled zinfandel fears to tread. You see a kitchen like this and instead of feeling hungry, you feel nervous.
However, home dining can also take a more graceful cue from restaurants. If a simple floating dahlia, oh-so-flattering cube lamp, or Eames chair finds its way to the table, the implication is not pretension, but a clever touch on an otherwise routine home-cooked meal.
But what does “home cooking” really mean? Is it literal, pertaining to recipes passed down through generations, or is it the whole experience of dining at home, the familiarity of the everyday china, the worn sturdiness of the dinner table, the form of a favorite utensil or serving bowl? These are all deeply personal, and nearly impossible to re-create out of context.
Ideally, one could aim to fuse the imaginative cuisine and decor of dining out with the fundamentally personal aspects of dining in—taking some risks yet retaining a sense of nostalgia. After all, a big part of enjoying food in the home is actually feeling at home.
And maybe that’s the elusive feeling that restaurants, as well as amateur hosts and hostesses the world over, hope to attain when inviting strangers, friends, or family members to their table. Whether it’s through design that invites not intimidates, or food that surprises yet comes from the heart, the best reaction one could hope to receive from a guest is a sigh of familiarity.