The luxurious paper napkin of Prime Meats on Court Street
Photo by Joshua Kristal
Article by J.W. Yates
As any epicurean will tell you, nothing screams class in a restaurant like a lap blanket-sized cloth napkin billowing over your knees. Yet many have noticed of late a trend toward smaller napkins worldwide, challenging those untrained in the arts of contained slurping and chewing.
And there’s another trend afoot.
Even among finer establishments, many are opting for paper instead of cloth. While there are positive and negative attributes to both, it’s an issue on the minds of many.
As diners, we have certain expectations about what kind of napkin to expect when we go out for dinner. The crisp cloth napkin remains an emblem of the upscale eatery, but it may be time to get used to the paper replacement.
As cotton prices continue to rise globally, it is easy to see why many would favor paper. The price of raw cotton is nearly double what it was a year ago, after peaking at an all-time high a few months back. But there are factors beyond cost that go into the choice of napkin.
One Brooklyn restaurant, Prime Meats, a Carrol Gardens favorite, chose quality paper over cloth napkins. Known as much for their hardy spaetzle as for their brisket and bratwurst, Prime Meats is a place that knows the value of detail, and whose diners have much to wipe from their lips and fingers. After weighing the pros and cons, the owners decided on 16¾-inch square paper napkins because, as co-owner Frank Falcinelli told the Wall Street Journal, paper is recyclable, and doesn’t create the pollution and water-waste associated with laundering.
There is also the considerable hassle and frustration of having to manage daily laundry deliveries. Most busboys, waits, cooks and dishwashers have enough to deal with without lugging bundles of barely-used napkins around at the end of their shift. Using paper may be a blessing for any over-stretched back-of-the-house staff.
Photographer Josh Kristal contemplates the size of his napkin.
From a customer’s point of view, paper may be the better choice anyway. Isn’t it a little weird wiping your mouth with a piece of cloth that was resting on someone else’s lap just last night?
The napkin is as much a part of the dining experience as the aperitif or the dessert menu. You may not spend much time thinking about thread counts or fiber content when you sit down to eat, and you may not have a direct preference for one type over the other, but you would certainly notice if it were missing.
And lest we forget, the paper napkin holds a special mystique in the cultural zeitgeist. How many inspirations and fleeting thoughts have been captured on little paper squares? How many ad hoc business contracts? One can hardly imagine Burt Rattan scribbling down groundbreaking airplane designs on a cloth napkin.
And there is the famous Hemingway tale: That the brash and boozy writer was sitting at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan with his famous writer friends and boasted that he could write a short story six words long. A $10 wager was put on the table. Hemingway grabbed a paper napkin and wrote: “For sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” He won the bet.
While it is unlikely that the type of napkin at your place setting will change your life, or add to your fame, it is possible that small details such as size and strength of such accoutrement quietly define your experience as a whole.
As lean economic times continue, don’t be surprised if you begin seeing paper ‘kins proliferate. Just remember, the clothes may make the man, but the napkin rarely makes the meal.
JW Yates is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn. His band HotterThanACrotch is a fixture on the local underground rock scene. You can check out his blog at http://info.bmsystems.com/blog.