(The following story was published in “Epicure,” the magazine for the 2009 Pebble Beach Food & Wine event, April 16-19, 2009)
By Carolyn Jung
Over the years as general manager and maitre d’hotel of some of San Francisco’s toniest restaurants — Masa’s, Gary Danko and the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel –Nick Peyton never instituted a dress code for diners in any of those elegant dining rooms.
Wasn’t necessary, he says. Never even considered it.
Until three years ago.
That was when a gentleman in shorts, a muscle T-shirt, and flip-flops walked into Cyrus in Healdsburg, where Peyton is maitre d’hotel/co-owner. At the Michelin two-star restaurant, caviar and champagne selections are rolled to the table on a gilded cart, and servers set down every dish at the table simultaneously in a polished dance.
“The guy said he called and was told there was no dress code,” recalls Peyton, who nevertheless seated the man because he was with a well-known winemaker. “I said, ‘I guess I’ve just come up with a dress code then.’ ”
Prompted by that man’s attire — or lack thereof — Peyton instituted his first dress code that’s still in place at Cyrus, which bans shorts, sleeveless T-shirts, and yes, flip-flops.
Times were only a generation or two ago that diners took pains to dress the part when dining out. Times have changed. Restaurants now are responding by tightening — or loosening — their own standards as a result.
At Thomas Keller’s exalted Per Se in New York and French Laundry in Yountville, men must don jackets for lunch or dinner. But at Aureole in New York, the jackets-required rule that stood for 17 years fell by the wayside two years ago. When the venerable Le Cirque re-opened two years ago in its new New York building, the Maccione sons convincingly argued to soften the “jackets required” decree in the main dining room to “jackets suggested” in the café portion of the restaurant, much to patriarch Sirio Maccione’s dismay.
For good or bad, society has not only embraced the “Casual Fridays” concept, but a segment has gone so far as to adopt it to mean “casual anytime we feel like it.”
“When we hit the tech boom, it was probably the worst era for fashion for all time,” says David Bernahl, chief executive of the upscale men’s and women’s boutique Pacific Tweed in Carmel, and co-founder of the Pebble Beach Food & Wine event. “You had new wealth, and guys who were brilliant programmers and engineers who became leaders of industry overnight. What they were comfortable in influenced fashion. They were worth a billion dollars, and wore T-shirts and shorts. It wasn’t done well.”
In some cases, it still isn’t. At Cyrus, Peyton has gone so far as to loan clothing-challenged male diners a pair of black suit pants normally worn by the servers.
“It boggles my mind when people come in and obviously they’ve rolled out in their most casual outfit. And it’s not a nice pair of jeans, and it’s not a nice sweatshirt,” Peyton says. “I watch couples come in, and the woman is beautifully turned out, and the guy is a schlub. I sit there and think, ‘You’re going to spend a large amount of money here. Don’t you want to feel special?’ ”
Charlie Palmer has seen it all, too. After all, the chef-restaurateur has 11 restaurants nationwide. Although he doesn’t like to generalize, Palmer agrees that women do tend to spiff up more then men, and it’s the older generation of men, rather than the younger, who always arrive in jackets.
At Palmer’s restaurant in Dallas, not surprisingly given Southern mores, diners dress to the nines. In Las Vegas, you get every outfit imaginable and then some. In Washington, DC, it’s suits and ties all the way. And on any night at his Dry Creek Kitchen in Wine Country in Healdsburg, one table might be filled with winemakers in jeans and rolled-up sleeves, another table might be a young couple decked out in cocktail attire for a special occasion, and at the bar might be a group of cyclists still in nylon bike shorts after a long ride.
To Palmer, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, he has no strict dress codes at any of his restaurants.
“At Aureole, you’d get one guy in a $50 sports coat, and another guy in an $800 Missoni sweater. So would you turn him away for not being in a jacket? It got silly,” Palmer says. “I think you should just let people be the way that they are. If you get people in a comfortable mood, they will enjoy the experience so much more.”
Still, even Palmer draws a line in the dining-room sand: No ripped jeans. No flip-flops. And cut-off T-shirts? Don’t even think about it.
“I don’t condone sloppy dress,” he says. “The key words should be common sense.”
But should money be allowed to trump that? Some diners have made the argument: Why should their attire matter if at the end of the meal they pay the check anyway?
Lisa M. Grotts has a strong rebuff to that. An etiquette expert who was once the former director of protocol for the city and county of San Francisco, she once read a study that found people tend to act more casual when they dress casual, and act more formal when they dress formal. Her golden rule: When in doubt, over-dress rather than under-dress so as not to insult your host.
“Why do we need to dress to reflect the event we’re attending? Because there are rules for a responsible society,” she says. “We have rules for how we drive a car. We have rules for playing golf and for other sports. And we have rules for dressing. When you don’t follow them, you’re just drawing attention to yourself. It’s almost like the joke’s on you.”
Clothier Bernahl agrees. He believes some men might wise up if a friend were to take photos of them, showing them exactly what they look like in public.
“There’s a history of men thinking that their shirt will be choking them if they have a tie on. But that just means your shirt isn’t fitting you correctly,” he says. “A suit should feel as comfortable as a jogging outfit. It’s all in the cut and fit. My point is that you can be comfortable and still look good.”
Just ask Chef Palmer. He prefers dining at restaurants that don’t require jackets. He admits he wears a tie as little as possible. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in being well put together.
So just what would Charlie Palmer wear when dining at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole?
“I wouldn’t wear a jacket” he says with a laugh. “I’d wear a nice pair of slacks. I’d wear a nice dress shirt. A $400 or $500 shirt – one with no elbow restrictions so I could get at the wine easily. It’s a big deal being comfortable.”
As dining out these days proves, it most certainly is.
CATEGORIES OF DRESS
Protocol expert Lisa M. Grotts defines the most common ones.
Casual: For men, it means khaki slacks and a polo shirt or button-down (white or blue) shirt with a navy or khaki blazer. For a beach setting, lose the blazer. For women, a cotton skirt or summer slacks and a structured T-shirt with sandals. Three-quarter-length pants are fine. Expensive designer jeans that don’t show parts of your anatomy are acceptable, too.
Business Casual: Consider it business without the casual. For men, a blazer and tie. For women, a dress or a pantsuit.
Smart Casual: No real definition. Try not to use it. Grotts believes that when you start to use too many prefixes or adjectives, it gets too confusing Instead, make it either casual (such as for a summer party) or business casual (more formal).
Cocktail: For men, a dark suit with a tie. For women, a dress or a dressy pantsuit.
Black tie: For men, a tuxedo. And no, it can’t be merely a black suit. For women, a short or full-length dress.
Black-tie optional: For women, a cocktail dress. When the qualifier is “optional,” women can opt for short over full-length Men typically will skip the tux if the word “optional” is on the invitation, and wear a dark suit instead. Unfortunately, the few men who do wear tuxes then stick out at the event and tend to feel uncomfortable.
White tie: The most formal, usually reserved for very special events, such as ones at the White House. For men, black tailcoat, black pants with a single or double stripe, white wing-collared shirt, white vest, white bow tie, and white gloves. For women, floor-length evening gowns (of any color) with gloves optional.
WHAT TO WEAR AT VARIOUS TYPES OF RESTAURANTS
Clothier David Bernahl and protocol expert Lisa Grotts weigh in with examples of proper attire. When unsure, they both advise to call the restaurant to ask what type of clothing is the norm.
McDonald’s: Anything goes.
Neighborhood trattoria: For men, a fitted pair of slacks, a dress shirt, and a quarter-zip sweater; for women, a fun little dress or skirt with a cropped jacket and great boots, according to Bernahl. High-end designer jeans are fine by Grotts. She says to think casual to business casual for this type of eatery.
Ruth’s Chris or Peter Luger or another expensive steakhouse: Bernahl advises men to wear a sports coat, a dress shirt, a pair of high-end jeans, and good shoes. For women, he suggests a pretty dress and heels. Grotts concurs, adding that business casual should be the overriding thought.
Per Se or the French Laundry or Le Bernardin: Coat and tie for men are essential, Grotts says. A dark suit in winter or a light-colored or light-weight linen or seersucker in summer. Bernahl says this is the time for men to bring out the bespoke suit and women to put on the fabulous cocktail dress. “When you go to places like these, the chefs and staff put so much into the food and the ambience. It’s like an orchestra at work. And you are showing up for the show.”