It can be anything from plastic to linen to brown paper – the tablecloth has been a blueprint of our lives for generations. After a recent pandemic cleaning frenzy, I realized that there are 52 tablecloths spanning 30 years of birthdays, holidays, baptisms, date nights and family gatherings in my closet and drawers. They contain as many memories as that other relic known as the photo album. Fights. Tears. Celebrations. Spilled wine. Hookups, breakups, crack-ups. If those tablecloths could talk.
There are the ones my aunt meticulously embroidered by hand and the 100-year-old monogrammed linen from my grandmother that survived World War II, ending its journey in Santa Monica. And those durable plastic Italian coverings decorated with lemons and olives, pheasants and flowers that have seen years of barbeques and toddlers in the backyard grotto. And there’s nothing like a red and white checkered backdrop for pizza night, be it plastic or cloth.
It’s become an obsession and I’ve been randomly collecting them over the years. Before the pandemic I couldn’t resist picking up a seasonal runner from the Chinese shop on skid row inside the toy market on my way to the office.
Generational conversations about high school, college, lost relatives and times ahead have been spent leaning on the humble tablecloth and as many hours spot cleaning the wine stains so we could do it all over again for Sunday dinner. Even the disposable plastic covering from Smart and Final elevated a park picnic into a special occasion.
“When you have a tablecloth, it makes you feel like you’re at home,” Jar restaurant owner Suzanne Tracht tells L.A. Weekly. “People expect a tablecloth when they come into Jar.”
Just before the pandemic, the tablecloth was a vanishing luxury in local restaurants with the dawn of fast casual and increasing costs. Even with outdoor dining, Tracht still uses linens which are covered with a sheet of butcher paper which helps keep some of the cleaning costs down.
“I’ve been using the same old family laundry – Yee Yuen Linen Services – for more than 30 years at two different restaurants,” says Tracht, who was washing her own rags and kitchen chef shirts at home while doing takeout at the beginning of the pandemic. “It’s a small family business and we get each other. That was my first phone call when we had to shut down the first time last March. They were devastated and I felt so bad for them. The last thing people ever think about is linens. Even if you don’t use tablecloths in fine dining, you still use cloth napkins, there’s uniforms for your crew, you need kitchen rags. So you still have a linen company no matter whether you use tablecloths or not.”
It’s hard to fathom at this point, but one day the pandemic will be a memory as well. When that day comes, I’m making a b-line for the Toy District downtown for a Christmas runner. I really could use another one.