Michelle Vanderwalker guides me past the herb garden and the pantry shelves of preserves and pickles destined for cocktails at Kingfisher, the Durham cocktail bar she plans to open early next year with her husband, Sean Umstead. Then she leads me through the backyard to her home studio. This airy space, outfitted with a custom-built slab roller, a massive work table, and shelves and shelves of ceramic prototypes, is where Vanderwalker hand makes all of Kingfisher’s ceramic cups, coasters, and bar-top tiles, in addition to serveware for restaurants such as Counting House and St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar.

Vanderwalker is one of several talented local potters who, in addition to producing their own lines of work, collaborate with Triangle chefs and restaurants to create custom serveware that blends form, function, and style. What you eat and drink from may seem like a subtle part of the restaurant experience, but in a time when local food is an often-copped buzzword, chefs who are as intentional about their plates as they are about their ingredients are creating truly local restaurants. And at a time when diners are more discerning than ever, with more choices, these types of design details have the power to distinguish one restaurant experience from another.

“It’s not necessarily something that people think about going into restaurants. They’re not going to go in and be disappointed that their serveware isn’t unique. But I think it’s a really nice surprise, and I think surprises are a really underrated element of the dining experience,” Vanderwalker says. “If you can be a little bit surprised and delighted by a detail such as the serveware being unique, and then you ask about it and find out that it’s made by someone locally, that elevates your experience of that restaurant.”

A beautifully handcrafted plate reflects the level of care that a chef puts into preparing and serving a dish, especially since we eat with our eyes first. And though there is some uniformity, each ceramic piece is truly unique, due to the variety of clays, glazes, and firing processes. Noticing the subtle flecks or textures on a plate adds another visual element to eating—or Instagramming—a dish.

Kingfisher’s cups add texture and a tactile element you might not otherwise get when you’re sipping a cocktail. Holding one of Kingfisher’s rocks glasses, it sits differently in your hand than a glass one; and even if you didn’t notice it was ceramic, you can’t miss the short spikes protruding from its sides. Ditto that for the fruit-and-vegetable relief on the tiki mugs, which also serve as a subtle nod to Kingfisher’s produce-driven cocktails.

“There’s texture on the mug. There’s something tactile, so it feels different than holding a clear glass in your hand,” Vanderwalker says. “It’s fun to get a different cup—it feels like it’ll be a different experience before you taste it.”

Working with local potters also shows that chefs care about community. It’s more expensive, but besides getting a unique product, they’re also supporting local businesses. And for chefs who are diligent about ingredient sourcing, it makes sense to apply the same diligence to their dishware.

“To me, I look at it the same way I source our food. I want to create a relationship. I would like to get to know those people, know their history and story,” Jake Wood, chef de cuisine at Raleigh’s 18 Seaboard, says. “It brings a lot more to the plate when you start to talk about your ingredients. And I treat our plates just like an ingredient. It’s the main ingredient of our dishes, so to speak, because it’s our blank background.”

As a result, 18 Seaboard’s salmon and  turquoise spring-summer plates will make way for others with a neutral color palette and a more rustic feel for fall-winter. Last year, Wood started working with Matt Hallyburton, of Hallyburton Pottery in Rutherford College in Western North Carolina. All of Hallyburton’s work is handmade using North Carolina clay, some of which he digs himself, and is fired in a wood-burning kiln, whose ashes and flames leave subtle, unique markings on each piece.

In addition to the stripped-back color palette, Hallyburton’s new line for 18 Seaboard reflects his philosophy of creating plates that are harmonious with the food. Wood says the new plates really allow the colors and textures of the fall ingredients to pop. Slices of rosy duck breast are fanned out alongside a butternut squash mustard, a lavender-hued muscadine whip, and green Brussels sprouts, whose charred, caramelized edges pick up the speckles of the plate’s own wood-fire ashes.

As 18 Seaboard finalizes its fall-winter menu development and plating style, Wood provides feedback to Hallyburton to inform the final look and feel of the plates.

“We can collaborate the same way we would with a farmer,” Wood says. “The same way we might need a different size or quantity of a vegetable, we can collaborate with Matt on the size, edges, and rims of the plate.”

Mark Warren and Chris Pence, co-owners of Haand, a pottery company in Burlington, took a similar collaborative approach when working with chef Michael Lee at M Sushi. It was also a keen reminder that, no matter how beautiful, the pieces had to be functional. Warren recalls one sculptural piece that ultimately made a better paperweight than a plate, and that they steered away from creating pieces that curved inward too much, because they collected water in the dishwasher.

Besides being functional and aesthetically pleasing, tableware can help reflect a chef’s overall vision for a restaurant. When Ashley Christensen opened Death & Taxes, her restaurant devoted to cooking with wood fire, she tapped Haand.

“Ashley had a clear idea of what her menu was going to be and the colors she wanted. It was really important to have a foundation to build on, not only the function of the plates but also as a design element within the restaurant,” Warren says.

Because Death & Taxes is housed in a former bank, Warren used money as inspiration to develop the specific shades of brown, gray, and green for the restaurant’s serveware: copper pennies, silver dimes, green bills.

“It’s referencing it but not making it in your face,” Warren says. “It doesn’t matter if the customer knows that it’s referencing money or the history of the place as a bank, but it’s part of that experience. It seems to be clear that someone chose that color, a specific kind of green.”

The glazes also incorporate leftover wood ash from Death & Taxes’ grill, so depending on the type of wood the kitchen uses, the ash and glaze melt differently, creating varying rivulets and ripples. And the texture can skew more toward a crème brûlée-like finish or something smoother, depending on the temperature or thickness of the glaze, or where the piece sits in the kiln.

“You want some element of chaos because that’s what creates that indefinable thing that makes it good and different,” Warren says.