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     Charger plates make a comeback.    
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Charger plates make a comeback.

    To dress up a table, more restaurants - and home entertainers, as well - are getting back to using chargers. These chargers are not the San Diego variety, nor are they the type that allow the jerk at the next table to talk incessantly on his cell phone.

Chargers are large decorative plates that are part of the initial place setting on a formal dinner table. They're not new - they've been around since the late 1800s - but they all but vanished during the 1990s. Now they're back in vogue, but their proper use is a point of confusion.

Even the name is somewhat perplexing. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word's definition is a large flat plate and is derived from the old French chargeour, from the Latin carricare, which means to load. That's a bit contradictory because these are large flat plates that are not meant to be loaded with food. Perhaps that explains why in department stores throughout Great Britain you will see them labeled as underplates, which makes them sound a bit like unmentionables. advertisement

But mention them to manners mavens and you will get myriad responses as to their proper use. A question: At what point should the chargers be removed from the table?

Restaurants deal with them a number of ways. Some whisk them away the moment guests are seated. Others leave them as a huge coaster for a cocktail glass. Sometimes the soup and salad courses are served atop the decorative plates, then removed for the entree. And there are even some at which the underplates stay under all the plates through to the end of the meal.

Consultations with a number of etiquette sources, restaurateurs and consultants failed to reach a consensus.

At the posh Victoria & Albert's at Disney's Grand Floridian hotel the chargers are removed before the serving of the amuse bouche, the tiny appetizer offered before the meal. But the reason, says chef Scott Hunnel, is not based in deeply rooted etiquette rules but rather economic ones. The Wedgwood chargers are decorated with a 24-karat gold replica of the restaurant's logo.

"Every time you put something on it you'll scratch the logo," says Hunnel, so the chargers are removed and polished by hand.

At Caribe Royale's Venetian Room in Orlando, Fla., maitre d'hotel Todd Skaggs says the chargers are left on the table to hold the small amuse bouche dish. When the guest has finished the one-bite starter, the plate is cleared by removing the charger. Skaggs says the use of a charger adds to the upscale ambience.

"It is for setting and for show," he says, "and it gives a nice sort of background for the amuse."

New York restaurant consultant and tableware designer Clark Wolf agrees that the charger is useful through the amuse bouche, but it could also serve as a coaster. He thinks it's fine for the waiter to serve a small glass of champagne on the charger next to a dish with an amuse.

At Maison et Jardin in Altamonte Springs, Fla., owner Bill Beuret has his staff leave the chargers on the table through the appetizer course, even though, like Victoria & Albert's, they are pricey plates - Rosenthal - with the restaurant's logo.

Chargers needn't be made of delicate china, says Wolf. They can be copper, they can be leather, they can be plastic or just about anything else. The idea, however, is to complement the dinnerware and enhance the place setting. But they can be functional as well. If one of those first courses is a salad that is served on a small plate, the charger can catch bits of lettuce or an errant cherry tomato that might fall off.

"Manners are about being thoughtful," says Wolf, "not just about going through the motions."

As for etiquette experts, the Etiquette Queen at Party411.com says the chargers should be removed before any food is served, while another Web site, Metro.ca, says to leave them on until the cheese course. But as Carson Brown Elliott, an etiquette instructor in Mississippi, points out at Theproperthing.com, if an entree requires a lot of cutting, a plate might slip and slide if it's placed on top of a charger. Therefore, remove before the main course.

So if there is a consensus it is that there is no consensus. If you use chargers at home, you're free to use them as you wish. Leave them on the table throughout the meal, especially if they help hide a stain on the tablecloth, or remove them along with the finished salad plates.

And if you spent a lot of money on your chargers, get them off the table as soon as your guests sit down - you're less likely to lose one.


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