Summer is the time for tiki drinks and roof decks, for finger food and flip-flops. And that’s why, at restaurants with a strict dress code, summer is the time for awkward conversations.
Conversations like: Excuse me, sir, T-shirts are not permitted in the dining room.
Or: Excuse me, sir, may we suggest that you go back to your hotel room to change?
In the summertime, people dress casually and “think they’re allowed everywhere with that dress code,” says Adnane Kebaier, maitre d’ at Marcel’s in Washington, D.C., which requires jackets in the dining room. It’s his job to break it to them, delicately, that they are not. “I will never hurt their feelings,” he says. “We accept almost everybody, except in shorts and flip-flops.”
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Usually, he’ll seat the underdressed near the lounge, and they’ll never be the wiser. But first, he’ll offer them a loaner jacket.
“I have all jackets made by Brooks Brothers, like the president,” he says. “I have six sizes.”
There are closets like Kebaier’s all across the country, filled with identical blazers hanging in wait for the next wardrobe faux pas. But each year, there are fewer of them. As fine dining grows more casual, restaurants with jackets-required policies are going the way of the dodo – a fact that’s never more obvious than in the summer.
“I would say that we encounter this more into the warm season,” says Karim Guedouar, service director at Daniel in New York. “It’s a weekly-basis occurrence.”
Daniel, the Michelin two-star restaurant from chef Daniel Boulud, requires “proper pants, no jeans, no flip-flops, no shorts,” says Guedouar. “The shorts and the flip-flops are quite rare. When it occurs, I cannot let the guest be like that. We do let them know – either to go back to the hotel, if it’s the case of being a tourist, and change. Or we just simply cannot honor the reservation if they don’t want to dress up. That is the most extreme situation.”
This never would have been a problem for our grandparents. Fine-dining restaurants didn’t need to post notice about “proper attire,” because people in improper attire probably weren’t eating in fine-dining restaurants. But today, athleisure is the predominant style, and rule-breaking chefs have done away with the previous generation’s idea of what fine dining is supposed to be. In new-wave fine-dining restaurants, the music may be louder and the tablecloths may be optional. (But the price is definitely high.)
“We decided not to require jackets, because it took us just a hair into the formal and stiff category,” says D.C. restaurant Pineapple and Pearls chef-owner Aaron Silverman. “A lot of people wear jackets here – it’s great. But to make it required is a hair different.”
Relaxing the rules has “opened doors for people who might not ordinarily go to a fine-dining restaurant, especially when you’re on vacation,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach. “Most people don’t pack a jacket.”
But as restaurants grow more casual, we lose something intangible.
“You lose part of that elegance, and that charm,” says Whitmore. “Studies have shown that people tend to act better when they’re dressed up, and they feel better.”
That’s why, even as restaurants like New York’s longtime 21 Club have loosened their dress codes (it used to require neckties), other historic restaurants are holding firm.
“There’s a difference between eating and dining,” says Melvin Rodrigue, president of Galatoire’s, the renowned restaurant in New Orleans that has required jackets at dinnertime and all day Sunday for all of its 111 years. Dressing up “heightens the excitement, and it puts an edge on the experience. If you’re going to a fancy restaurant, you should be dressed fancy to match the occasion. That’s just my personal opinion.”
Rodrigue doesn’t anticipate that the restaurant will ever change its tradition. “It’s like a sense of responsibility at this point,” he says.
But Spiaggia, in Chicago, got rid of its 30-year-old jackets rule two years ago.
“That whole idea of having a jacket and a tie is not really something that restaurants should be dictating. If you feel like you want to wear a jacket, great,” says chef-owner Tony Mantuano, who gave the restaurant’s closetful of jackets to a consignment store. “It still shocks me when I look in the dining room and see people in T-shirts,” he admits, “but it’s just the way things are these days.”
That’s not stopping Metier, the new D.C. restaurant from former CityZen chef Eric Ziebold, which requires male diners to wear jackets. “Ties are optional. T-shirts, shorts, sporting attire, casual wear and open-toe shoes for men are not permitted,” says the website.
Ziebold declined to be interviewed, but before Metier opened, he told the Washington City Paper that he wanted a dress code because he wanted his restaurant to have “a little air of magic to it and a little air of mystique to it.”
A jackets-only rule may be easier to enforce in staid Washington. Ziebold’s publicist says that the six loaner jackets, by Hart Schaffner Marx, have only been needed a handful of times.
And, to be honest, the restaurant’s aura of formality is due more to the elegantly choreographed service than the dress code. When this reporter dined there on a recent weekday, there were some men dressed to the nines – hat tip to the older gentleman in the cream-colored suit – but also several in jeans and cotton blazers. Only one man in the entire dining room wore a tie, and one wore a bowtie.
Sorry, gents, but all the maitre d’s interviewed agreed – women tend to dress better for dinner, regardless of the season.
It’s easier for women, though, because there’s a wider range of acceptable fashions. For men, it’s simple: No jacket, no service.
Granted, it’s not just the summertime that makes maitre d’s sweat. Guests forget their jackets all year long. Tourists are particularly susceptible.
“Probably they’re very close to Marcel’s and they Google what’s near,” says Kebaier. “And then when they show up, they find out they’re in a fancy restaurant.”
Sometimes, Kebaier will bend the rules on a particularly slow or hot day. That’s never the case at Daniel, where, Guedouar says, the chef takes it as a personal affront if guests are poorly dressed.
“That’s his home, that’s his flagship, that’s his pride, that’s who he is,” says Guedouar. “Chef Daniel himself is a big protector of these rules.”
The restaurant’s 25 jackets, size 32 to 52, are made by the chef’s favorite tailor. They’re “very dark blue with gold little buttons. They’re very subtle.” says Guedouar.
One time, he says, a well-known young chef came into the restaurant for a celebratory dinner. The chef told Guedouar that he didn’t own a jacket – but the maitre d’ caught him admiring his reflection in the loaner. He and Boulud decided to make it a gift.
“He was very touched, left the restaurant all proud,” recalls Guedouar.
Not every celebrity encounter goes so well. Guedouar says that he and Boulud sometimes get celebrities who refuse to dress up, so they usher them into a special private dining room. It’s a win-win. The celebs think they’re getting special treatment. But they’re also being hidden away from Daniel’s better-dressed regulars.
It was a celebrity encounter that led, in part, to Spiaggia’s decision to change its rules.
“Paul McCartney came in, and he didn’t have a jacket on,” says Mantuano. “What am I going to do? I’m not going to tell Paul McCartney to put a jacket on.”
There’s a delicate art to telling men that they’re underdressed.
“It always has to be nice without making the guest feel like he’s underestimated. You don’t know who’s in front of you – maybe a guy who’s wearing tennis shoes and nice jeans is carrying a black American Express,” says Kebaier. “You treat everybody the same way: kings and queens.”
But it would be nice if they dressed like royalty, too.
“I think it’s a beautiful value,” says Guedouar, “that’s getting lost in time.”