Features Vintage en Vogue on Starchefs.com
Vintage en Vogue
February 2009

Each cocktail glass that sits on the counter at Vessel, a hip Seattle bar, holds a bit of history along with the gin, vermouth, or crème de violette.

Vessel uses vintage crystal stemware that their staff has handpicked from antique stores and boutiques, or found online. The glasses, all made before 1950, are often etched or gilded, and filled with creative twists on classic cocktails, like the rye-laced Cablegram or the Ginger Grapefruit Rickey. Mixologist Jim Romdall (a 2009 Seattle Rising Star) takes the shape, size, and color potential of each glass into consideration when he chooses what to serve. History plays a role, too.

“A cocktail’s history will affect the glass choice,” Romdall says. “One developed in 1880 will go into a glass reminiscent of that era, one from the 20’s in another.”

Vessel, which brought vintage ware to the table under the guidance of mixologist Jamie Boudreau about a year ago, is not the only spot using antiques. Vintage glasses and plates are in vogue. They pepper tables and counters in a small but dedicated number of establishments across the country.

Though the dishware, which ranges from quirky to delicate, ornate to plain, is more work to find, restaurants and bars are using it to add a spice to the table beyond the edible. And, in some cases, to even add to the flavor.

At Bobo, an intimate eatery in Manhattan’s West Village, the tables are laid with vintage ware ranging from coffee cups and saucers to bread and butter plates, collected from antique stores and consignment shops in upstate New York and in Connecticut. Though sometimes acquired in larger sets from designers like Taylor Smith & Taylor and Heinrich & co. almost every plate is different. “They are just like any plate you saw in your mother’s house growing up,” remarks chef Patrick Connolly. Restaurant Eloise in Sonoma, CA also uses vintage plates to add charm to their French-influenced Wine Country restaurant.

Connolly, who came to Bobo from Radius in Boston last year, says that he has even changed the way he cooks a bit to better fit his cuisine with the plates. “My background is in white plates,” he explains; on them he presented more complicated, colorful food. “But now I’m doing a more simplified plating style, so that it won’t look out of place.”

“I want to allow the plate to do its thing,” he says.

At Vessel, Romdall likes to choose glasses that complement each drink. Sometimes that means using a deeply etched glass to better reflect the light and color, like with Arsenic and Lace, a purple-hued concoction made from gin, absinthe, and crème de violette. Sometimes it’s for shape, like for the Colony, a drink with a flamed orange peel, and is best in a large glass that opens up, with a lip that comes in slightly on top. The shape and size, he maintains, affects both the aroma and flavor.

“Depending on which glass you use—how wide it is, what the pattern is—each drink is completely different in a different glass,” Romdall explains.

At Apotheke, a bar tucked on Doyers Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Austrian-born mixologist Albert Trummer also collects antique containers to serve his distinctive array of herb and botanical-infused drinks. He sticks to crystal, and looks for designers like Reidel, or even Hoffman. He prefers handmade and from Paris, or purchased from stores like Baccarat, a high-end crystal establishment found on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It’s not an easy venture: each glass can cost around $150 and needs to be hand washed. They also use regular glasses, Trummer explained.

“There is finally a new age for cocktails,” declares Trummer, who refers to himself as an apotheker, someone who uses herbs and botanicals to create cocktails with medicinal and elixir-like qualities. “And there is a new age for beautiful cocktail glasses.”

There is a downside to using such individual plates and glasses, though: they can be costly and, more often, irreplaceable. Bar and restaurant owners who use vintage wares have to learn to relax, explains Boudreau, who is now a mixologist at Seattle’s Tini Bigs. You have to be able to let go. Especially, he replies, “when that irreplaceable piece of stemware is broken by the drunken lout at the end of the bar. It's a lot to ask an owner of a business to do.”