Why Your Grandma's Crockery Is Back In Fashion
One of the first things my partner and I did when we moved into our first flat together was hop onto eBay and search for vintage crockery. One of the second things we did was order pizza from the nearest independent pizzeria – one of those cool, trendy ones that throws stuff like broccoli and Calabrian sausage on their pies. I’m not telling you this because I think you have a burning interest in my pizza consumption but because I’m not the only person who has found themselves jumping onboard the vintage crockery bandwagon recently, scouring charity shops for plates that are on just the right side of tasteful.
Look at the feed of any food stylist or recipe developer and you’re bound to stumble onto a photo of some delicious-looking food planted onto a plate that wouldn’t look out of place in your nan’s house. Chintzy is the new chic.
Rosie Mackean is a chef, food stylist, home economist, and pasta queen whose excellent newsletter, The Dinner Party, supplies her subscribers with killer recipes and tips on how to host. Rosie, like me, is a big fan of vintage plates and you can see her crockery playing a significant part of her newsletter aesthetic.
“I love vintage crockery because it makes even a really simple thing look kind of luxy and retro,” Rosie tells Pinch, “Boiled eggs on toast soldiers served on a delicate willow pattern plate look like they could be in a scene from Mad Men. Truthfully, I just want my life to look like scenes from Mad Men.”
Don’t, however, think that simply banging a slab of lasagne on a vintage plate will turn you into a food stylist overnight. Or Don Draper, for that matter. “More than anything I think curating an aesthetic that you love is key and part of that is being consistent,” explains Rosie, “if vintage crockery, colour and kitschy things happen to be your vibe (for me they definitely are) then keep using them and people who feel the same will be inspired by your content.”
The vintage Reli Washbourne china plates I bid viciously for on eBay have got little hand drawn depictions of cathedrals on them (Canterbury, Salisbury, and Wells if you must know) and they’ve since been joined on my shelves by even more china that’s older than I am. I’ve got plates from Wedgwood, Grindley, and James Kent – all of them made by British producers, and all of them festooned with some sort of delicate flower.
I use mine to hold everything from fish finger sandwiches to heavily-buttered crumpets. Sometimes I like to create the most obtuse mish-mash of food I can imagine just so I can have the bragging rights of saying that I’m the first person to ever eat a sriracha carbonara or a gungo pea udon stir fry on one of those plates. It’s the little things in life. And it’s hard to ignore the impact that a good plate can have. New York institutions like Fishs Eddy have been a hot spot in the States for restaurateurs and home cooks who know their Alison Romans from their Alice Waters for years. British chef Gabriel Pryce (of Rita’s in Soho) made a pilgrimage to Fishs Eddy this year and returned with luggage full of contraband retro scalloped plates. Even Dishoom has recently launched a new bespoke crockery collection, drawing inspiration from vintage Indian patterns.
For a restaurateur or chef, it’s all part of creating the right feel. South African-born Shaun Moffat is the head chef of The Edinburgh Castle Pub & Dining. Located in a historic 19th century building in Ancoats, the Edinburgh Castle is a popular spot in Manchester to get your laughing gear around everything from retired dairy cow cheeseburgers to plates of Joy of Ladram pollock with velvet crab bisque and land purslane. Nearly all of the dishes come served on fetching vintage plates.
“I’ve always loved them,” says Shaun, “there’s always been a decorative plate floating round the house, my mom actually saved a Peter Rabbit one from my childhood which is now my son’s cereal bowl.”
A lot of the plates at the Edinburgh Castle have been sourced from charity and vintage shop hunting through Manchester and Cheshire. Owners Nick and Hayley Muir do a great deal of the sourcing themselves with some of the plates having been donated by their parents. The customers are fans, too. “It gets commented on quite a lot,” admits Shaun, “everyone in the kitchen has a favourite plate too. There’s always a debate on what should be plated on what.”
How your food tastes is important but so, too, is how it looks. The chipolatas and mustard at Finsbury Park’s The Plimsoll, for example, would be far less charming if they were served on a slate grey plate. Tumble them onto a plate that looks like it’s come straight from the 1950s, however, and paying £8 for a plate of charred sausages suddenly seems much more palatable. It’s all part of the experience.
And it’s not just the trendy spots that are thinking long and hard about their crockery, either. The plates at Wetherspoons are a big part of the group’s branding. Made by Stoke on Trent-based pottery firm Churchill China, their iconic blue pattern can be spotted from a mile off. The signature Wetherspoons style is called Vintage Print Prague Victorian Calico and you can buy them online for about £6.39 each, should you get the desire to make your living room feel like a Spoons.
The camera eats first for a lot of diners nowadays and, as a restaurateur, making sure your plates are as recognisable on your customer’s Instagram stories or TikToks as the food that’s on them is a crucial part of advertising your restaurant’s brand to as wide an audience as possible. Sargasso – a popular wine bar and restaurant in Margate – has its own line of plates, embellished with the joint’s name and a thin red line, reminiscent of the monogrammed crockery favoured by classic Parisian restaurants like Bistrot Paul Bert and Bouillon Chartier. No, it’s not always done as part of some wider, calculated branding decision, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. The plastic plates at Chinatown’s Wong Kei are London’s answer to the plates used by those iconic French bistros, and it’s no surprise that they’re regularly nicked by diners drunk off Tsingtao and crispy pork belly.
If that theft proves anything it’s that more people than ever want to deck their kitchens out like professional kitchens, transforming their living rooms into small plates restaurants where you don’t have to worry about tipping your waiter. And as popular restaurants like the Edinburgh Castle, The Plimsoll, and Rita’s have started embracing old school plates and cutlery, that’s the style of homeware which yuppies like me are suddenly gagging for. Because if I like a plate at a restaurant or café, you best be damned that I'll be flipping it around to see where it was made.
There are entire Etsy accounts dedicated to selling retro saucers, oil jugs, and salad plates. A couple of the more niche, one-trick-pony pieces of crockery – like a set of coloured glass sundae dishes too small to contain anything aside from a scoop or two of gelato – might sit at the back of your cupboard collecting dust for most of their lifespan but on the odd occasion they do get to be presented and filled with Nigella’s homemade no-churn coffee ice cream, they steal the show. Having some of those pieces in your arsenal can help you create a more specific vibe for your next dinner party and add a bit of character to whatever it is you’ve cooked for dinner.
Part of the appeal for me is that those cathedral plates remind me of my grandparents at every meal. The food I’m eating might be more readily seasoned than the food they’d knock up but, still, it’s a pleasant way to send my senses back to their bungalow in Romford. My favourite plate at the moment is a blue-rimmed number from TK. Rosie Mackean’s got a favourite plate, too. “I stole it from my mum’s house,” she laughs. And guess who she stole it from? My grandma.”
“I think there’s a certain familiarity and comfort around them,” agrees Shaun, “they’re not mass produced, they’re leftovers and I’d rather use what’s then create a demand. The planet is already pretty full of unused things.”