The clink of dishes is one of the distinctive sounds of a restaurant, and now the source of this distinctive
sound is the target of collectors.
Restaurant china, also referred to as hotel ware and commercial china, does not limit itself to restaurants.
The category is broad and includes pieces used on airplanes, trains and ships, as well as examples used by
hotels, governments and hospitals. Regardless of its origins, this china is thick and designed to withstand
heavy daily use.
"This type of china represents a piece of Americana that no longer exists," said Annaliese Garan of The
Bee's Knees (www.beesknees.biz). "It's a reminder of the simpler times and also brings back memories of
places that we may have traveled to or dined at in our youth."
Restaurant china was originally imported from England; however, this changed in the early 20th century, as
hotels began to add meals to their services, and restaurant and cafes were built. Demand increased, and
soon American companies made china for commercial use, including Hall China Company, Lenox and
"Restaurant ware seems to represent a kinder, gentler era to me. There was tremendous pride on the part of
establishments which ordered it and on the part of the companies that produced it," said Bill Welch, a
collector from Baltimore, Md. "So much of that is gone now. I suppose that many of us who do collect it
are trying, in our own way, to preserve a little bit of all that we've lost."
Nostalgia is not the catalyst for all collectors; some start a collection purely on accident.
"In the early 1980s, my husband, Joe, came across a creamer at a flea market. Because we already had far
too many collections, I begged him not to buy it, knowing it would be just the beginning," said Barbara
Conroy, author of Restaurant China Identification & Value Guide for Restaurant, Airline, Ship & Railroad
Dinnerware, Vol I & II. "When I couldn't convince him, at least he promised not to buy creamers with
handles (cream pitchers). As time passed, we became hooked on collecting restaurant china."
Collecting transferware creamers led Carol Cardona of Mesquite, Texas, to restaurant china.
"As I scanned the offerings of creamers of various auction sites, I noticed some of the beautiful restaurant
ware creamers. After a while, I began collecting these creamers and no longer sought out transferware."
Out of a collection of about 70 creamers, Cardona has several favorites that include four from restaurants of
the 1920s and 1930s and two rare company dining room creamers from U.S. Steel and Mobil Oil.
"My main interest for years was railroad china and silver which was used on the dining cars," said Helen
Cutshaw of Daytona, Tenn. "Whenever we went out 'junking' we were always on the hunt for railroad
china. But since I worked in advertising, the restaurant china pieces always appealed to me, and I started to
pick up a few here and there."
She found a few pieces with a fouled anchor on the to use in her lake house.
"I later found out there were [United State Navy] plates, which started a whole new collection for me. I
ended up with about 200 pieces of china, which I used as my everyday pattern and also collected the silver
flatware and hollowware, which I used on occasions," Cutshaw said.
Sean Meredith of Track 16 Vintage in Santa Monica, Calif., only collects pieces with logos.
"Collectors can collect hundreds, even thousands of completely different logoed pieces. Except for a
couple of exceptions, I have no duplicate logoed pieces. It is the variety of restaurant china that drives
collectors' obsessions," said Meredith.
Meredith finds that while the popularity of certain pieces and styles fluctuate, quality hamburger and
tropical items are always popular.
"Vintage hamburger, lunch counter and drive-in mugs are high in demand," said Meredith.
Other items that have become more popular are items from Horn and Hardart, the U.S. Forest Service,
Dunkin Donuts, Ford and the Ahwahnee Hotel. Items from New York City restaurants and pre-revolution
items from Cuba area also highly desirable.
"Areas that were popular when I first started collection about eight years ago aren't as popular now,"
Meredith said. "Back then, a majority of collectors were into butter pats, diary lunch and lunch counter
china. There were also into items from the late 1800s through the late 1950s. Now, many collectors are
into 1950s and 1960s items. It's nostalgia for them."
Starting a collection can be relatively easy. With the Internet, collectors are able to sell or trade pieces with
each other faster than before.
"Think about what interests you the most," said Garan. "Some collectors prefer to concentrate on one type
of piece, such as creamers, teapots or cups. Others collect the sets for everyday use and will put together
various place settings from different business interest areas such as transportation, restaurants, schools and
Conroy said when looking for pieces or sets, remember that restaurant china is made from many materials.
"Collectors sometimes specialize in ware of one or more of these materials. Some of the materials include
porcelain, bone china, stoneware and vitrified china," she added.
Since the 1800s, more than two hundred manufacturers have produced thousands of commercial patterns.
"Since the patterns were not advertised to the public, many do not have a name, only a number," said
Conroy. "But some patterns did have names, such as Blue Willow and Indian Tree that were produced for
the household and commercial use."
If a piece is considered part of stock pattern, meaning it might have been used without acknowledging a
specific transportation line that used the china, the value of the piece is low.
With so many pieces out there, new collectors might have trouble spotting fakes or reproductions.
"First, learn the backstamps and date codes of pieces," said Meredith. "Be aware of fakes and know how to
spot one. Very few legitimate pieces of restaurant china have logos that are over glaze, meaning that you
can feel the logo with your finger…The exceptions are the pieces from the 1970s and 1980s."
• Restaurant China Identification & Value Guide for Restaurant, Airline, Ship & Railroad Dinnerware,
Vol. I & II by Barbara Conroy. Conroy also has a Web site at
• Little Spoon's Restaurant China and Restaurant Ware Museum – www.littlespoon.com
• Track 16 Vintage Collectibles – www.track16vintage.com
• Dinner in the Diner – www.dinnerinthediner.com
• The Bee's Knees – www.thebeesknees.biz
• Steve's Cup of the Day – www.restaurantwarecollectors.com/aimoneart
• Restaurant Ware Collectors Network – www.restaurantwarecollectors.com
Apryl Chapman Thomas