The next time you place a counter order for a sandwich, a salad, or a bowl, you’ll be rung up, prompted to add a tip — and perhaps delivered your food on a sturdy, familiar, and very photogenic blue and white enamel tray.
Blue and white enamel trays are seemingly everywhere. They’re at Gjusta in Los Angeles, at Noosh in San Francisco, at the peak-2019 Gertie in Brooklyn, at Manhattan fast casual spot Mint, at Portland Oyster Shop in Maine. At Suraya in Philadelphia, where the saturated blue fits the restaurant’s generally bright vibe, servers use them to reset silverware during service, though they never make it to the table. How did these trays, once an artist’s tool used for mixing colors, spread so wide?
Part of the appeal is undoubtedly aesthetic. White makes for a nice contrasting backdrop to colorful food and the blue rims a subtle design touch. “If you’re thinking of how your food resonates on Instagram,” says Charles Billies, CEO and founder of Souvla in San Francisco, “they’re great for that.”
There’s also something fun and retro about enamel trays. The shape brings to mind a school lunchroom, like a cafeteria experience all grown up. Many spots, including Souvla, lean into the nostalgia with branded wax paper atop the tray. At Gertie, an all-day cafe with a diner ethos, the team uses Crow Canyon’s enamel jelly roll pans for sandwiches and the large open roaster for displaying breads and pastries.
“They fit perfectly with our aesthetic of a retro luncheonette counter,” says Flip Biddelman, general manager and partner at Gertie. “Whether it be a sandwich with chips or a rotisserie chicken with rice and beans, [it] looks clean and well-framed on the tray and ultimately produces a sense of nostalgia. The rest of our dishes and glassware are an assortment of thrift store purchases.”
Enamel trays also have some functional advantages. Many all-day cafes double as unofficial workspaces, and there’s something organized and satisfying about tray dining. Plus, all the childhood advantages hold true: They contain the crumbs on flakey pastries and minimize sauce drips. And for newer fast casual restaurants, the choice of dishware may urge diners to stay inside for lunch rather than rushing back to a cubicle. The particular gray-beige of a compostable bowl does not spark joy; a bright white tray just might.
They’re also cheap and extremely hard to break, a dream for any restaurant operator. According to Billies of Souvla, they’re more likely to chip than shatter; the chips, especially around the edges, become part of the tray’s character (though they do pose a challenge to Greek traditions of plate smashing, he jokes). They’re heavy and stackable, not to mention magnetic; at Souvla, the garbage cans have magnets to prevent accidental tossing.
Souvla’s trays come from Crow Canyon Home, which sells wholesale to restaurants and other partners as well as home goods stores — meaning they’re easy to buy for home kitchens. Crow Canyon’s Jelly Roll Pan or Small Rectangular Tray both do the trick (the latter is smaller). Falcon is another popular brand whose enamel pieces can spotted at US restaurants as well as across Australia and the UK.
There are also versions at Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond...
... or, to return to the tray’s art store roots, pick up a palate at art supply shop Blick or buy them in bulk via a restaurant supply store.
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