On an unusually warm night in the West Village, while other New Yorkers were outside walking their dogs in sneakers and T-shirts, a family of five sat primly in the front window of a formal dining room, each dressed in a smart blazer. A couple in a velvet booth in one corner wore suits: his navy blue, hers pale blue. The pearls shone, the freshly polished shoes gleamed. When a fashionably dressed couple paused to glance at the menu, the sight was jarring: they were wearing jeans.
That everyone was in full swing at this restaurant, Les Trois Chevaux, was no coincidence. They had been instructed to do so the day before in a text message that looked like a manifesto.
“At Les Trois Chevaux, we revere style and finesse that can only be attributed to New York swagger,” he said. “We hope that our guests arrive in the proper attire for dinner and that you celebrate the style that downtown New York can bring.”
So that there is no confusion, the details followed: “Blue jeans, shorts and tennis shoes are strictly prohibited.” Diners were “kindly” asked to wear jackets. For those without a jacket, a vintage Yves Saint Laurent model would be provided. Anything else? “Absolutely no flip flops,” the owner, Angie Mar, emphasized in an interview.
“Something that I feel tremendously missing in New York for the last five or six years is that old-school style that I love,” he said. “It’s important that we bring that back.”
During a pandemic in which many Americans have traded in their tailored pants for casual wear, dress codes are making an unexpected return to the dining room.
In the past two years, a number of new restaurants have opened across the country with policies on expected dress, some harsh (“strictly enforced fashionable and elegant dress code,” warns a text message from Olivetta in Los Angeles) and some vague (“smart casual or better,” advises Catbird in Dallas).
Some are ambitious: “We expect our guests to do their best,” says Kitchen + Kocktails in Chicago. Others seem to allude to some earlier troubling incident: “Clothes emitting offensive odors not allowed” at Juliet in Houston.
Whatever the details, the calculus is the same: the belief that many diners are itching to get dressed again after a time of record slovenliness.
“Everywhere we went, people were walking around in sweatpants and T-shirts and not combing their hair,” said Rosea Grady, general manager of Thirteen, an upscale Houston restaurant founded by pro basketball player James Harden that opened in March. of 2021. “We wanted Thirteen to be a place where people give their best.”
A dress code also complements the luxurious setting, he added. “The building is beautiful. Our wallpaper is from Gucci.”
If all of this sounds a bit exclusionary, in some places it is meant to be. “My restaurants are not for everyone in terms of taste,” said Mar of Les Trois Chevaux, which opened last July with a menu that includes luxurious dishes like a foie gras-stuffed mille-feuille cake.
Dress codes can also seem contradictory at a time when many diners have reacted angrily to other directives, such as requests to wear a face mask, and when even some formal restaurants with long-standing dress rules have relaxed them during the week. pandemic. Eric Ripert, the chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin in Manhattan, said he dropped the requirement that men wear jackets because sharing the restaurant’s borrowed coats seemed unhygienic.
In recent years, the restaurant business has grappled with equity and inclusion issues, and dress codes have come under renewed criticism as a covert way to discriminate or treat customers arbitrarily. Last month, former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms tweeted that she had been turned away from a Capital Grille in that city for wearing leggings, wondering “if the woman who walked in right after me, who I didn’t see, came back? get out, He was also denied service”. (The restaurant group said Monday that the woman had gone to order takeout, but that its president apologized to Lance Bottoms, and that she updated the dress code and retrained staff on proper enforcement.)
“Dress signifies a lot of very controversial issues: gender identity and gender roles, race, class, status,” said Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford Law School professor and author of “Dress Codes: How Laws of the fashion made history”. “When we can’t really talk about these issues openly, we fight through representatives, like clothes.”
Some local governments have even stepped in to condemn dress codes. In the summer of 2020, the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution urging Atlas Restaurant Group to remove its dress code after a black woman and her son, who was wearing sportswear, were denied entry to Ouzo Bay , while a similarly dressed white boy was already eating dinner. (The restaurant group apologized and relaxed the code.)
Many restaurateurs point out that their dress policies are broadly worded so as not to be perceived as racially coded or gender specific. Some allow more casual clothing such as jeans, cropped shirts, and mini skirts.
“It’s not stuffy,” Kim Walker said of the dress code at her Los Angeles rooftop lounge, Bar Lis. “But she gives people signals, like, ‘Hey, I’m going to go home and fix myself up a bit.'”
Many diners don’t care. Many take the opportunity to dress up.
Priscilla Von Sorella, a fashion designer in Manhattan, said that dressing well allows her to express unspoken gratitude for restaurants.
“They really have suffered a lot in the last two years,” he said. “Every time you walk into your establishment, especially if it’s a nicer establishment, it’s a way of showing your appreciation and a level of respect.”
Marissa Hermer, owner of Los Angeles restaurants Olivetta and Issima, said diners often tell her the restaurants’ dress requirements make them feel like they’re part of a members-only club.
At Carte Blanche, a Dallas tasting-menu restaurant where the dress code suggests “refined casual” attire, chef-co-owner Casey La Rue said so many guests arrive so overdressed that he’s considering opening another location with a more formal code. .
Clearly, he said, “there are people who want that experience.”
And then there are those who don’t. Musician and record producer William Wittman is still chafing from the time he dined at Patsy’s, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, on a hot summer’s day in the early 1980s. The air conditioning wasn’t working, but the staff insisted he use a jacket.
“The idea that this somehow made his dining room classier under the circumstances is just ridiculous,” Wittman said.
Dress codes remain on the books at many white-tablecloth restaurants. Joel Montaniel, one of the founders of the SevenRooms reservation system, said that since the pandemic shutdowns he has seen dress guidelines appear more frequently on reservation confirmations.
But they are still a rarity. And because most are general suggestions rather than lists of do’s and don’ts, the decision as to whether a particular diner adheres to them is often subjective.
Even Ms. Mar, who sets explicit limits at Les Trois Chevaux, acknowledged that they are not applied uniformly.
“There are rules and then there are rules,” he said. “You know when Tom Fontana comes here, he’s a neighborhood regular, he wrote ‘Oz,’ he’s a good friend of our house. Tom comes over, he forgets a jacket, we’ll close one eye.”
Flora, a Mexican restaurant in Houston, bans gym clothes. But one owner, Grant Cooper, said guests dressed in designer sportswear, like Lululemon, could be allowed in. “It’s also about how the person does it a little bit,” he said.
In most restaurants, that call is often left with the clerk at the front desk. Some hosts said they felt burdened by the responsibility of making snap judgments about people’s attire.
Julia Yaeger was a hostess at a traditional French restaurant in Washington, DC, until this past May. The dress code recommended jackets for men and business or formal wear for women.
“It was really awkward, especially because of the vagueness” of the guidelines, he said. “It seemed like no one really knew what it meant.”
She felt particularly uncomfortable explaining the dress code to non-binary customers as it was worded in such a gender-differentiated way. When she asked other guests to put on a jacket, some yelled at her.
It’s hard to separate dress codes from their history as a tool of division and control, said Thompson Ford, a Stanford law professor. While they have existed throughout history, modern versions proliferated in the mid-20th century, when standards of proper public dress began to relax.
The dress codes, he said, were a “filtering device to make certain groups of people feel unwelcome, or to signal that this is not their kind of place.”
Andre M. Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who has written about race and dress codes, is skeptical of the current guidelines for restaurants.
“I’m hard-pressed to find a dress code that isn’t stuffy, but I’m also not saying that a restaurant shouldn’t inspire a community of some sort,” he said. “I just think that the way we define ‘community’ is often racist, sexist or homophobic.”
In May 2021, Monica Johnson, who works for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, publicly complained that she had been turned away from Le Bilboquet, a French bistro in Atlanta, for wearing a tracksuit, when other diners dressed more. by chance. Days later, former Atlanta Hawks player Dominique Wilkins tweeted that the restaurant had turned him away because he didn’t follow the dress code.
“I have eaten in some of the best restaurants in the world,” she wrote, “but I have never felt prejudiced or rejected because of the color of my skin, until today.” Le Bilboquet denied discriminating on any grounds; he said he had revised his dress code, which still bans athletic wear and trains employees on diversity, equity and inclusion.
Ms. Johnson says she is not opposed to dress codes. “I just want them to be applied fairly,” she said.
James McGhee, owner of Juliet’s in Houston, said he had faced discrimination at city bars that ban clothing such as Air Jordans “to discourage black people from coming.” But he has imposed his own dress code, which encourages “luxury attire” with no gender-specific requirements. McGhee said he trains employees to respect different interpretations of “exclusive,” including sneakers.
Some new restaurants proudly proclaim that they don’t tell diners what to wear.
“We wanted to make it more accessible to everyone,” said Jennifer Tran, who opened Jeong, a Korean restaurant in Chicago, in 2019 with her partner, Dave Park. People often call asking if there is a dress code. “It’s always nice to be able to tell them, ‘No, feel free to come as you are.'”
But there are drawbacks to that choice. Ms. Tran believes that the dress code is an unspoken criterion for restaurants aspiring to earn Michelin stars.
In certain circles, a dress code will always matter, he said. You just have to decide if you’re okay being out of them.