Ivar's Acres of Clams last month discontinued its dessert tray, making the once-ubiquitous practice of dangling sweets in front of customers even rarer in Seattle.
Acres of Clams has previously tinkered with its dessert service, and spokesperson Allison Ferre won't rule out the tray's return. But the dessert tray remains a severely endangered restaurant nicety likely to go the way of branded matchbooks and house phones.
"I have not seen a dessert tray in Seattle for 25 years," says George Dyksterhuis, general manager of Il Terrazzo Carmine, one of the last local restaurants to use a dessert tray. "The last place I saw a tray was in Vegas. It's old school."
When Il Terrazzo Carmine opened in 1984, the dessert tray was a standard element of high-end restaurant service. According to Michael Krondl, author of Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert, the tray evolved from the trolleys that French servers pushed through the dining rooms which for decades defined western notions of fine cuisine. Tableside displays of savory items went out of fashion in the 1970s, but the tradition endured at meal's end for another 15 years, Krondl says.
Although servers sometimes griped about having to wait for the dessert tray and chefs sometimes complained about having to concoct a crème brulee for show, what did in the dessert tray was nouvelle cuisine's emphasis on precious plating. Dessert trays made more sense when pastry chefs left before service, leaving it up to the garde manger to cut boringly linear servings of chocolate cake and apple tarts.
"Any self-respecting restaurant, they don't give you a slice of cheesecake, they give you an individual cheesecake with coulis and a garnish," Krondl says. "There's been a tremendous shift where the pastry chef is working the line."
Krondl believes the attention that restaurants now lavish on pastry has fueled the "deconstructed kiddie dessert" trend: Diners are buying cream-filled cupcakes and sugary doughnuts because of their highfalutin menu descriptions and extraordinarily elaborate presentations.
"If someone were to bring around s'mores on a tray, nobody would order them," Krondl says.
Dessert trays have survived at restaurants which have resisted modernizing their dessert selection; Krondl says they're still found in Italian-American restaurants across the country.
At Il Terrazzo Carmine, the tray is daily set with half a dozen desserts drawn from a lineup that includes cannoli; peach Melba; chocolate mousse and a Napoleon. "We put the real deal down," Dyksterhuis says. "And between lunch and dinner, we'll scoop them up and put new ones down."
On New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day, the restaurant prepares two trays.
"It's a selling tool," says Dyksterhuis, who maintains the restaurant easily recoups the cost of the desserts created for the tray. "From my experience, we sell a lot of desserts."
Krondl says diners often have a harder time saying no to dessert once it's put in front of them.
"Trying to convince them to have dinner is not a problem, but after dinner, they're not necessarily hungry," he does.
The tray does such a good job of stimulating hunger that Krondl thinks it may yet mount a comeback.
"The concept is enormously effective," he says. "Maybe now what they need is an iPad with a feed to the kitchen."