Dressing For Dinner

(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.” 

Cyrus' Nick Peyton. (Photo courtesy of Cyrus)

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. 

Chef Charlie Palmer (Photo courtesy of Dan Waldbridge)

“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.



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. 



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.”

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  • As a high school debate coach who inevitably lectures students about dress code for tournaments, I think the Grotts citation is perfect for my class! As a diner who gets fussy about people treating fine dining like they are at Chuck E. Cheese, the entire article is a perfect statement of how we should dress (and ultimately act) in such establishments. It definitely not only affects your dining experience, but that of guests around you! Great article!!!

  • hmmm, it’s interesting how people from carmel and napa (expensive leisurites) are the ones who care… I’m glad there are so many casual restaurants with fantastic food because I hate heels, pantyhose and dresscodes. I follow a basic rule that you should fit in with your surroundings and so I don’t like stuffy formal places where uptight people in suits with lots of rules dine.

  • Great article. I know that my husband and I, who are going to the city for a few days next week, are planning meals around the fact that we will be casually dressed. No fancy dinners this time, we’ve made reservations at “casual” restaurants where the clothes were are wearing exploring the city won’t matter.

  • Great article! It’s easier for my husband to choose his attire for our fancy dinners – it’s either suit with a tie for a more formal restaurant or suit with no tie for more casual. I always have trouble choosing a dress especially when packing to travel.

  • The palaver that you hear from the highbrows re men’s attire stems largely from a different perspective. The nicer restaurants have staff who spend more time there and who are more meticulous about their service and their fare. So they expect you the customer to be equally reciprocative with respect to the “least you can do,” i.e., dress nicely and don’t be rude. But the guys who wear suits and/or ties all week long would rather eat a Carls’ Jr. burger @ a fast-food restaurant than dress up, even if someone else is footing-the-bill. (But the ad that shows the guys eating a burger at a nice restaurant are the equivalent of vanity-star-search programs, and appeal to the same demographic.)

  • I don’t have many dresses so I don’t know if I can eat at French Laundry. Maybe one day. I prefer casual places anyways. I always feel uncomfortable eating at high end restaurants w/ dress codes.

  • Love the topic Carolyn, and you certainly obtained some strong and authoritative perspectives on the matter. However, I think those perspectives veer a bit towards the materialistic rather than questions of etiquette and sartorial protocol…in particular Chef Palmer’s comments. To state that appropriate dress consists of a “$400 to $500 shirt” or an “$800 Missoni sweater” over a “$50 sports coat” only serves to make fine dining an affectation of the rich, rather than a place to experience great food and drink.

    Personally, I think it’s ultimately up to the diner to make the effort to understand where they’re going to dinner and dress appropriately. Blanket rules, for the most part, are only for folks unable to apply practical decision-making. And I certainly don’t equate “dollars spent” with “well dressed.” I’ve seen plenty of Zara/H&M/Marshall’s suits that would be more appropriate attire than some of the gaudy fashions enjoyed by the monied set.

    As a reflection of growing eclecticism in the world of fine dining and dress, just look at Ubuntu in Napa, Schwa in Chicago and WD-50 in NYC. All serve plates that are at the highest levels of fine dining, but exist in settings that are far more casual. Sure, coat and tie work pretty much everywhere, but these restaurants strive to prove that elegant food is within the reach of anyone who feels passionately enough to eat it….and not just secret clubs for the monied class to strut and preen in. As a counter-point there will always be places like The French Laundry, Eleven Madison, and Cyrus, but not all moves to the casual are necessarily downhill ones.

    So in the end, I’d say that most everyone can dress appropriately regardless of one’s personal budget. It’s no so much how much one spends, but how much one thinks about what they wear that determines appropriateness in social situations. Let’s not make this about “old money vs new money” as Mr. Bernahl suggests. And while we’re at it, let’s not make it about money at all…how about as diners, we just take a little time to understand where we’re going before we get dressed to go there.

  • It’s a shame that we are so rule-based that we feel the need to define “appropriate.” This is a dining room, not court of law. Rigid standards are useful only to those seeking to bend the rules.

    I agree with the advice of calling the restaurant but don’t ask the dress code: Ask what dress is appropriate. One should not look to meet the minimum. We should want to enhance the experience of going to the restaurant for ourselves and for others in the restaurant. Restaurants at this level are not just about the food.

  • P.S. This may be the only food blog where one might read a phrase like, “a fun little dress.”

  • Thank you all for your very thoughtful, insightful views on this topic. I had a feeling this one would push a button for a lot of people.

    AJ: I couldn’t have put it better myself. I don’t think one needs to spend a fortune in order to look appropriate. You’re right — all it takes is a little effort.

    Moe: What can I say? This Food Gal readily admits she has a thing for fashion, just as she does for food. 😉

  • Vancouver is infamous for its casual dress code. At operas and galas, you’ll find a mix of tuxedos, cocktail dresses, yoga wear and ski jackets. I’ve seen a guy in jeans and a sweater at Lumiere, not that he really stood out, save for his mullet.

  • What an interesting article. Especially for the bay area, the home of the tech boom, where people are generally dressed so casually…

  • I think this is an interesting topic, and I really believe there are geographical influences. People on the East Coast totally dress to the nines when dining and people on the West Coast is very LA about it, which means casual but nice. I’ve found myself over the yeats tending to want to feel more comfortable when dining, so I’ve avoided overly fancy restaurants that might require a suit and tie (oh, and plus I can’t afford them, ha!). I don’t go in dressed in shorts and muscle t-shirt, but I like to wear nice clothes that make me feel like I look good but also feel comfortable. Then I can focus on the food.

  • The guys who drop in at chic-chic restaurants in their work clothes (Bill Blass, anyone?) shouldn’t be allowed to skew the statistics.

  • Great article!
    I always dress up and am usually overdressed everywhere I go, even when I go to fancy restaurants! But that’s just how I dress!

  • Why should it matter that we as diners be mindful of dressing appropriately for the setting? Because we as diners become part of the setting! The experience of eating, especially in public, engages all the senses and for the visual, that includes not just the plate in front of us but the whole environment, which includes people. It’s why restaurateurs take such great pains to design their space as much as their menus. It may not completely ruin my whole meal but seeing a guy in a muscle shirt and flip flops takes a bit off the shine.

  • This is a good read! Thank you so much Carolyn!

  • I never realized that I when I went out to dine that it was up to me to impress those who run the restaurant. I always thought it was up to them to impress me.

    At any rate, the next time I will wear a tie will be when they bury me.

  • Great topic – and while I think as a rule it is generally reflected that you tend to “act” how you are dressed – ie.in high school, the guys are required to wear a tie on game day (to keep them acting like gentlemen.), there is always someone who will come along and completely bust that example.

    My experience happened at Fresh Cream in Monterey a few years ago, I am a local, and have always heard such great things, but it is VERY pricey, so we saved up and went for my birthday.

    Everyone in the restaurant was dressed very well, and the food was great, but we were seated near a table of 6 who brought the definition of obnoxious to a whole new level. Despite the fact they were about 3 tables away, we had to have our waiter repeat the specials several times, and they were so loud we might as well have been at Hooters (Needless to say, have never been back, and probably never will go back). So, I don’t think it’s the clothes that reflect the behavior. While I agree that there should be a certain level of dress -I think the diner should also be comfortable and not judged by what they are wearing. As far as I am concerned, eating should be an enjoyable experience – If you like to dress up, then that can help you have a better time – on the other hand, I am a more casual girl – an outfit that I am going to have to worry about or be uncomfortable in, takes away from an experience for me (I hate pantyhose!)

    In my personal opinion (which doesn’t mean anything), I think that some people need lessons in how to conduct themselves properly in public, and the proper attire will fall into place.

  • Good topic, and very timely. I think many may be overlooking the regional aspect to it as well. I’m here in Texas, and we have entirely different views on the subject by region.

    We’ve got the older money up in Dallas who have always had the expectation of dressing for dinner and are experiencing the more casual attitudes of this last generation of business casual folks.

    We’ve got the perenially nouveau-riche in Houston who have more attitude than common sense about it and strive strenuously to hold the line against this ‘slackening of standards’

    Then you’ve got places like Austin, where folks look at you like you’re crazy if you suggest that someone should NOT be allowed in to a fancy restaurant in shorts and a t-shirt. Austinites were wearing tie-dye and flip-flops to the Opera decades ago and never stopped.

    Personally, I think it’s just a matter of the expectation of the types of guests you get – if your patrons really DO get bothered by casual dress, certainly, a dress code is in order. Don’t have a code just to have one, though. It rankles the rest of us just as much or more.

  • One winery in Sonoma used a clever ploy to get its patrons at a special event to wear something nicer than t-shirts and crocs–They had door prize(s) for drawings from attendees who were allowed one entry each, provided that they were wearing shirts with a flower pattern. Maybe restaurants could do this occasionally (free entre’ anyone?), but w/ ties or skirts rather than flower-patterns.

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