A few decades ago, your restaurant bill might have arrived with a branded matchbox in tow. Though this dinky memento all but died out with the decline of smoking, the recognisable designs were restaurant merch in its earliest form. Now many tout mini emporiums of merchandised goods, allowing foodies to pledge fealty via T-shirts, tea towels or the trusty tote bag.
Any London gastronome worth their salt would recognise a particular pig as the insignia of Smithfield nose-to-tail restaurant St John or clock the mint-green stripe of Lina Stores (though few designs can compete with the pure pathos of beloved Taiwanese chain Bao’s ‘Lonely Man’ logo).
When the reality of lockdown for the restaurant trade loomed, merch was one way we might ease their plight. Pasta mecca Pastaio enlisted the likes of Tom Dixon, Luke Edward Hall and Campbell-Rey to design bespoke T-shirts in support of its hardship fund for staff, while Big Mamma Group – which owns Gloria and Circolo Popolare – launched non-profit shop Napoli Gang to provide for charity partner Street League.
Buying a bespoke apron or tote bag from London social enterprise Luminary Bakery helps secure employment opportunities for economically disadvantaged women. You could also acquire an apron from Highbury haunt Trullo, which now sells a limited-edition option, embroidered with its logo in gold, from a new deli opened next door, or one sourced from Lithuania by Honey & Co in beautiful 100 per cent washed linen.
Forget cheery souvenirs – these are wares with serious design kudos: flogging flimsy reusable coffee cups no longer cuts it when AllPress commissions handcrafted porcelain vessels from Japan’s artisanal district Arita.
Much like the pandemic-prompted surge of restaurant kits, it can be a way to elevate our home-dining experience – if there was ever a time to invest in an Ottolenghi tablecloth, designed by Ivo Bisignano and hand-painted by Italian artisans, it’s now. Last month, fellow purveyors of luxury table linen Summerill & Bishop launched a colourful, graphic collection with The River Cafe, which itself just opened an online store selling food, drink and homeware. Previous collaborators include chef Skye Gyngell of Spring and Heckfield Place fame – homeware brands are recognising the clout of the cult restaurant.
Now that artisanal tableware is treated as a touchstone for hip new openings, it’s no longer rare for a restaurant’s website to namecheck the potter who made the plates alongside the chef who produced the menu. (See Ikoyi, which incidentally stocks a particularly punchy plantain-print tote bag on its online shop.)
Early merch adopter Bao has now broadened its offering with a branded lifestyle store, Convni, selling speckled serveware by long-time collaborator Anna Hodgson, prints and teapots designed by founder Erchen Chang and soy wax candles shaped like its pillowy steamed buns. Followers of an Instagram page set up for the online shop, which launched in lockdown, enquire about drops of new tableware like cult sportswear addicts.
Though stores have long encouraged customers to linger by opening cafés, we’re witnessing the reverse – restaurants directing loyal diners towards design-led products. In September, cheerful Hackney bar and café Diddy’s cordoned off a wall for DiddyMart, which stocks a curation of homeware alongside colourfully packaged pantry goods. Most covetable are bright, sculptural candles from British Standard Colour, Lex Pott, Frau Gold and Esh, who hand-pour their products in south London, plus vintage coloured glassware.
In October, zero-waste pioneer Silo launched The White Building Market – in collaboration with fellow tenants Crate Brewery – a showcase of sustainable products commissioned for the restaurant in an adjacent space.
Alongside goat-leather aprons embossed with the Silo logo, you can buy exclusive bowls, chopping boards and even side tables from British materials innovator Smile Plastics, plus ceramics from Potters Thumb crafted in crushed glass from the restaurant’s wine bottles. We’ve come a long way since the matchbox.
This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration January 2021
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