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To Win on Instagram, Consider the Tabletop

A vintage table-making technique makes a perfect flat-lay background

The Riddler, San Francisco
Kassie Borreson

Two pairs of sunglasses, two glasses of sparkling wine, two small dishes of salty popcorn, and a face-down iPhone are shot from above. The lighting is perfect, natural; the scene, familiar. It could be a friendly weeknight aperitif or a light Saturday-afternoon snack anywhere in the country, except that there, on the crisp white tabletop just at the edge of the photo’s frame, are three precisely lettered words. “Hello, old friend,” is the tagline for the Riddler, an Eater Award-winning Champagne bar in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, a phrase the restaurant loves so much it had the tables special-made to include it.

The Riddler is a precisely designed space. A popping Champagne bottle is painted on the wall outside the restaurant. There are tufted benches, vintage Champagne buckets and silver trays, Russian coupes. But the tables are the showstopper. As restaurant operators design for the Instagram age, they’re thinking about how the overhead table shot (you know, the one you take stealthily, reaching your hand as high as you can to include everyone’s plate and maybe a friend’s casual hand) can include a calling card.

This is branding as design. What can make your marble bar-topped, Le Labo soap-stocked, vintage-plated small-plates restaurant stand out not only in the minds of your customers, but on their Instagram grids? The answer, a trend in the making, might just lie in the past: heavy, baked enamel tabletops that have been made for centuries, but are getting a fresh, ’grammable update.

Jen Pelka, owner of the Riddler, made the tables with Instagram in mind. “When you look at our geotags, 80 percent of the shots are shot from above,” she says. “When I go out to a restaurant and I want to put something on Instagram, I don’t want to put the menu in the post because it feels too staged. This was a way that can work with the existing design of the space that also tells people, ‘Hey, I’m at this space and I love it.’”

Pelka says her tables were inspired by Parisian cafes. In fact, she had them custom-made by a table maker in Lyon that provided the tables for Parisian restaurants such as Clown Bar and Cafe de Flore. Marble cafe tables with brass banding and short wicker chairs are common at French restaurants in North America, but these are something more. The tables don’t have a sticker on them. They aren’t a printing that will wear down over time. The Riddler’s tagline is baked into the enamel on the top of the table.

Charlie Biedenharn, one of the founders of Bakery Lorraine in San Antonio and Austin, Texas, came to his highly Instagrammable tables by another channel. At his new Austin location, the tables are even more intricately designed. A geometric pattern encircles the table, with a small name tag for the bakery repeating itself as part of the design. In the center, the company’s brand (a cursive L inside a B) is surrounded by radial lines.

“I didn’t think about Instagram initially. Our main drive was just to make some really cool tables,” Biedenharn says. “But it is definitely something we see in our tags and analytics.”

Bakery Lorraine, Austin
Courtney Pierce / EATX

Biedenharn’s inspiration was a bit more American. He was inspired by a collection of old tables at his former workplace that had enamel tops sporting large Corona beer logos. “I loved those tables,” he says. “I started trying to scour San Antonio for tables like that. I wanted to buy them, but they’re made of baked enamel, which is kind of rare.”

There are two ways to make an enamel table, Biedenharn explains: It can be made with powder coating, which is more modern and more durable, or it can be made with baked enamel, which allows you to have greater control over the details. When he started explaining this distinction to his coworkers, they looked at him like he was speaking another language. But Biedenharn knew what he wanted. A few years ago, he went to Vegas and visited Bouchon at the Venetian. It had the baked enamel tables he craved: a simple cream with a blue rim, and a blue logo in the middle.

Baked enamel has been popular for decades. Most of the famed round Parisian tables of the 20th century are made with baked enamel — the table’s popularity in America is in this way part of the growing French revival trend in restaurants. “These are classic cafe tables in Paris,” Joan Osburn, co-founder of Café Society, which aims to bring European cafe culture to America, says. “In the U.S., they are mainly specified by sophisticated restaurants that want custom branding.”

The tables at the Riddler were made by the French company Ardamez, which was founded in 2011 and specializes in the genuine french bistro table made with vintage machinery but with a modern twist. Flore Perona, a representative of Ardamez, says that the demand for specially made, ’grammable tabletops is fairly new. Ardamez’s U.S. clients include Swan Restaurant in Miami, the Riddler and Leo’s Oyster Bar in San Francisco, and Sadelle’s, the Elsa Bar, and the Soho Grand Hotel in NYC. It takes about six weeks for Ardamez to create a custom table, and a week for it to ship.

“The demand has increased in the last two years,” she says. “Le Beefbar [in Paris], for example. The place is wonderful, and so are the dishes [which feature striking graphic elements like emoji]. This fits very well with Instagram addicts.” Beefbar’s tables don’t have a logo on them, but are a distinctive, shiny black enamel.

Biedenharn had his tables made stateside at Windsor Fireform in Washington state. Both Pelka and Beidenharn said it took several months for their custom tables to get made and shipped, and that they were by no means cheap. Neither restaurant would tell me exactly how much they spent on their custom tables, but uncustomized baked enamel tables run around 450 euros (approx. $511 USD) plus shipping — they are very heavy.

“The ship cost can be almost as high as the table,” Osburn says, but adds that “when restaurants invest in quality furnishings, they will spend less in the long term because the pieces last longer.”

The high price tag seems to be worth it for publicity as well. The geotags of all of these restaurants show hundreds of overhead shots featuring their carefully designed tabletops. But even if a user didn’t geotag, the tag is already right there in the photograph, the brand on display right next to the carefully arranged pastries and cheese plates, written on the table: a vintage form of table making, with a 2019 purpose in mind.

Kelsey McKinney is a writer in Washington, D.C.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan

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