Imagine gazing at the face of Audrey Hepburn, Willie Nelson, Bill Murray or Waylon Jennings, glazed onto your plate, halfway through a helping of housemade tagliatelle.
You may have had this experience if you’ve dined recently at the Blount Street restaurant Stanbury. Co-owner Joseph Jeffers commissioned local potter, Liz Kelly, to create dishes emblazoned with the faces of some folks he finds inspiring after learning that Kelly was trained in ceramic decal transferring—a sort of ‘pop’ pottery crafting technique that allows artisans to source vintage designs and incorporate them into their pieces. Kelly has used the technique to transform most of Stanbury’s plateware into pieces as unique as the items on the restaurant’s menu (roasted bone marrow, anyone?).
“We see eye to eye as makers and people who have a lot of personality in our work,” Kelly says of her relationship with the folks at Stanbury. Along with the faces, dishes also host flecks of vintage floral patterns and other rustic, yet edgy, prints. With 17 years of work experience in bars and restaurants, Kelly says it seemed only fitting that her work would end up in eateries. “It was a big part of my personal work history,” she says. “I always loved the idea of fusing pottery with my work in restaurants and bars. It’s a perfect synthesis of the worlds I had.” She adds that Jeffers, who studied art in college, has a strong sense of style that he brings to all the elements of his restaurant.
“It’s not just about the look of the plates, but the feel,” Jeffers says. “The plates, like the restaurant to me, are comfortable. They mean something to me.”
A few other Raleigh restaurateurs and chefs are using their dishware to touch all the senses and to reflect their menus and restaurants’ spirits.
“There’s a definite movement towards artisan ceramics and pottery in restaurants, for a certain niche,” says Mandolin owner and chef Sean Fowler. “We try to not work with just local artisans and farmers, but with local businesses as well, so fostering those relationships is just an extension of what we do.” Fowler sources his dishes to consciously help convey Mandolin’s style and philosophy. “The first way you taste a plate of food is with your eyes,” he says. He hopes Mandolin diners will see its plates, like its menu and ambiance, as refined, classic and a little bit rustic.
Mandolin’s dishware comes from the Hillsborough, NC-based ceramics dinnerware and decor company Vietri; the dishes are all white and handmade from strong, Italian stoneware. “A lot of our clientele are people who have Vietri in their china cabinets and cupboards at home, so it seemed like a likely partnership,” Fowler says. While he agrees that it’s risky to source this fine Italian ceramic ware for restaurants, Fowler says there’s value in paying more for a plate. “In restaurants, we are admittedly very tough on dishes—it’s high temps and fast paced, so we impart on our staff to try to take care of them.”
Haand, a pottery company out of Burlington, NC, is helping to foster more opportunities for restaurants to use pottery as serving ware. Haand supplies hand-crafted dishes to restaurants all over the world, including several in Raleigh, such as Ashley Christensen’s Death and Taxes. Chris Pence, Haand’s co-founder, describes the company’s style as “farmhouse futuristic,” and says everything at Haand is handmade using traditional craft methods. The company can produce modern, organic products and form a niche in the restaurant scene simultaneously, as Haand pieces are equal parts artisan and durable, able to hold up in strenuous restaurant environments.
“Our clay is fully vitrified, meaning the clay is more a glasslike structure, and fired to industrial porcelain, so it’s able to be thin, but strong,” Pence says. Because of this technique, Haand is able to compete with larger, European producers by creating unique artisan pieces that aren’t commodities. If restaurant-goers look closely at the beautiful, glossy dishes at Death and Taxes, they’ll notice bits of ashes from the first firing of the restaurant’s grill infused in the glaze. It’s Haand’s work and an idea Ashley Christensen herself came up with, according to Kaitlyn Goalen, the executive director of AC Restaurants. All the dishes have a literal connection to the grill.
“We were excited to be able to memorialize how this place opened and use the elements of the grill in every concept of the restaurant,” Goalen says. “And North Carolina is so well-known for pottery. It was exciting for us. We wear our love of North Carolina on our sleeve.” ■