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Prior to spending a recent and relaxing weekend in Vermont, I began doing my homework to find a suitable restaurant. While most of our meals would be spent at local and simpler eateries, I wanted our Saturday night dinner to be somewhere special. By “special” I mean an upscale restaurant with above average food and just as important, a stellar wine list. I dug out my Wine Spectator dining guide issue, scoured the internet, and perused various restaurants’ online menus. If an establishment of interest did not post their wine list online, I requested an e-mailed copy. After studying my options I decided on a notable restaurant situated on Lake Champlain. Their extensive wine list sported a number of interesting Bordeauxs and Burgundies at a reasonable price. Throughout the five hour drive and even up to the moment of our reservations I endeavored to narrow down my choice. Finally, just before dinner I decided on a Burgundy I never had before. With my mind made up, my anticipation soared.
I was clad in a simple pair of black trousers, a dress shirt and jacket, no tie. My wife was attired in black Calvin Klein jeans with a stylish top. We approached the podium and announced our name and reservation time to the maitre d’. She immediately informed us that jeans, even black ones, were not allowed in the dining room. I began to protest but she remained adamant, claiming she had already discussed it with the manager. Apparently she observed us in the lounge awaiting our reservation time.
I was crestfallen. All my hopes for an elegant meal and what I expected to be a delightful Burgundy to accompany it were vanquished. As we left I began to feel angry and affronted. The nerve of this place! This was an upscale but certainly not top of the line restaurant. Not the level of sophistication where you would expect such restrictions. Well it was certainly their loss. I was prepared to spend a couple hundred dollars on food and wine. Now all they have reaped is bad press.
These experiences are of course, always grist for the “Food for Thought” mill and it got me thinking about dress codes in restaurants. After my anger dissipated I began to mull over the issue with a clearer head. As usual, most concepts are crystal clear at the extremes and fuzzier than a bale of cotton in the middle. The range that I refer to here is the expectations for attire at the most casual of eateries to the most elegant.
Beginning at the one pole, we’ve all seen eateries, sometimes very simple ones, with signs reading: “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” Arguably, hygienic concerns are a factor here. Neither customers nor proprietors would relish some sweaty bare-chested churl exhibiting himself at the dinner table. Moreover, only the most barbarous of individuals would balk at exacting such minimal standards of dress to preserve a modicum of decency. Social norms about public appearance at this end are pretty clear.
Now, let’s jettison ourselves to the other extreme. At your most preeminent restaurants a jacket and sometimes a tie is required for men. Women have greater latitude of what is socially acceptable dress, (a whole other issue in itself), but blue jeans, shorts, sneakers, and other garments of casual attire are inevitably prohibited. This is because formal dining is not solely a function of a restaurant’s status, but includes the patrons as well. Formal dining embodies an array of social rules and prescriptions for appropriate behavior. These standards reflect the genteel comportment and appearance expected in this particular forum. Nobody wants to spend hundreds of dollars on dinner to observe uncouth, T-shirt clad guests squawking on their cell phones and picking their teeth at the table.
Therefore, most would concur that a bare minimum of clothing is reasonable at one end of the dress code continuum while formal attire is apropos at the other, depending of course on the type of establishment in question. So where do black designer jeans fit in? Are black jeans in the gray zone…...somewhere between McDonalds and the haughty French restaurant? To answer this question I decided to do a little research.
While composing this article I called Daniel, Jean Georges, and Le Bernadin in New York City. These are three of the most distinguished French restaurants in New York; four-star palaces of haute cuisine. (On a side note I’ve been to both Daniel and Jean Georges and they were both the most fabulous meals I’ve ever experienced). In any event, I called each one to inquire about their dress code, specifically about black designer jeans for women. The results were unanimous: A jacket was required but a tie optional for men, and black jeans were allowed for women. In fact, the delightful woman at Jean Georges enthusiastically endorsed them.
Now my anger for the Vermont restaurant was reignited. The nerve of their pretentiousness! The highest class restaurants in New York City allow black jeans and this above average, yet still aspiring wannabe does not. Once again, their loss……or maybe not. Maybe they prefer miffed customers and less revenue in exchange for maintaining their inflated and haughty nimbus.
Prior to polling the above named New York restaurants I must admit I was ephemerally stranded in the gray zone. Maybe black jeans were a bit indecorous. But then when discovering that even more elite establishments harbored no such strictures, the gray suddenly became clear. The outrage my wife and I felt was now justified.
So the moral of this story is such: If you have any doubt about your dining apparel, check with the restaurant first. Most of the time dress codes exist for sound reasons. Be it hygiene, decorum or social etiquette, they are one of the fabrics that weave the cloth of our social standards. But as with any guideline, it must be flexibly and accurately instituted. Even a sanction designed to maintain propriety can become improprietous when out of sync with its social context. The restaurant with an excessive dress code is ironically creating their own faux pas, and possibly their own doom. They are dressed to kill their own patronage.