Rich Landau knew he'd made it when he took the salt off the table.
As the chef behind Willow Grove's vegan Horizons Cafe, Landau had for years longed for the cachet signaled by a table without salt and pepper. After a review praised his mastery of seasoning, Landau began to resent the shakers themselves, as though they were obstacles keeping him from reaching his culinary pinnacle.
In 2006, when he opened Horizons in Philadelphia, the tables were shaker-free.
"The salt was so iconic to me back then with what it represented," said Landau, who with wife Kate Jacoby now co-owns the acclaimed Vedge, V Street, and Wiz Kid. "Moving it off the table was such a big thing for us. I'll never forget it."
Landau is one of many chefs who long ago left salt and pepper shakers behind, relegating them to dining rooms of the past. Many say it's because a truly chef-focused restaurant should serve food that is seasoned to perfection. Others eschew the cheap, iodized table salt used in shakers. Some also swear by the cleaner aesthetic achieved by a table set without extra adornments.
It's long been common for top-tier restaurants to forgo tabletop salt and pepper. But over the last decade, as the dining scene shifted from a starched-tablecloth environment toward a more casual experience, salt has vanished from the tables of modest BYOBs, neighborhood hangouts, even gastropubs — establishments with chefs who are dedicated to crafting their own menus.
"You just don't see any credible restaurants with salt and pepper on the table anymore," Landau said. "Sorry, it's true."
Chef Marc Vetri said an exquisite meal is also about ambience, the spell cast by a restaurant where everything from the flowers on the table to the size of the dishes and silverware flows together.
"You want to set the stage," he said. "A salt shaker sitting out on the table doesn't look right to me. It's more like something you'd see at a diner."
At Vetri Cucina, he serves pasta and meat that he considers boldly — even aggressively — seasoned. Still, maybe once a week or so, a diner requests salt.
"I could never get mad at anyone for it," he said. "If someone asks for it, it's not a big deal. But at least eat it first. Have a bite. It should be seasoned the right way, but obviously it is subjective. And folks should know that, hey, they're not offending the chef if they ask."
Steve Cook, who co-owns Zahav, Abe Fisher, and other restaurants with chef Michael Solomonov, said not offering salt has more to do with providing flawless hospitality than preserving the ego of a chef.
"When that food leaves the kitchen, it's to be ready to eat. The guest shouldn't have to do anything," he said. "We're not doing our job if the food isn't coming out seasoned just right."
When used correctly, chefs say, salt isn't supposed to make a meal salty. It's used to bring out the flavors of the food.
"You want to put in every single grain of salt that dish will take, up to the point when it becomes salty," Cook said. "You want to take it right to the edge."
At Zahav, which serves meat, fish, and a variety of vegetables, guests do occasionally ask for salt. But Cook said servers are more likely to field comments about the opposite problem.
"When we were naming our cookbook, we joked about calling it Zahav: Loud, Dark and Salty," he said. "Those are the complaints we get. It would probably be more useful to some of our guests if we put salt remover on the table."
Chef Dominic Piperno of the Collingswood restaurant Hearthside said when he began his career about a dozen years ago, salt was still a frequent sight on restaurant tables. He saw less attention to detail in terms of seasoning than he said is now commonplace at many establishments. At Hearthside, sauces are prepared by measuring salt down to the grain.
A former sous-chef at Vernick, Piperno said when he left his job in Center City and started cooking for South Jersey diners, he also noticed what seemed to be a general difference in palates.
"If we seasoned as we did at Vernick, people would complain it was too salty," he said. "But for me, I feel like putting salt and pepper shakers on the table and under-seasoning food is going backward. … I'd rather one out of every 30 or 40 people say something's too salty than have people say it needs salt."