Decoding The Fine-Dining Dress Code

There was a time when going out to an upscale restaurant demanded that gentlemen don suit jackets and ties and women wear evening dresses or voluminous skirts. But in these slightly less-stuffy times, defining an acceptable dress code is getting increasingly more difficult. What falls under the “semiformal” heading these days? And really, what does “business casual” even mean? We sought out answers on the do’s and don’ts of dress from Anthony Rudolf, a former Per Se maître d’ who’s now the director of New York operations for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group.

What does “business casual” mean to you?

Business really should have nothing to do with what you do when you go to a restaurant because everybody’s business is changing so dramatically. You know, casual Fridays are now just casual. I mean, you look at one of the greatest CEOs of the last decade, Steve Jobs. [He] wore a turtleneck and jeans every day, running a multibillion-dollar company. So, for his business casual, he actually has to get dressed up to go towards what we consider business casual. So, I think that whole concept just needs to be thrown out because business has changed so much, and therefore, it shouldn’t be tied to entertaining or things that you would do in your free time, especially going out to eat. And you don’t want to be reminded of business when you go out to eat. If somebody calls my restaurant and says, “What do you wear?” and I say, “Business casual,” the first thing I do is make you think about work. So, I would throw out “business casual.” It doesn’t make sense.

What type of dress standards do you have at Per Se?

Jackets are required for gentlemen. We are very specific in that we don’t necessarily give it a name. It’s not formal. It’s not a name. We are just very specific. Jackets are required for gentlemen, and no shorts, sneakers or T-shirts.

Many restaurants still use traditional standards for how they designate dress. When somebody sees “business attire,” or even “semiformal attire,” attached to a restaurant, how should they approach it?

I think if they are confused, they should just call the restaurant. I think for most restaurateurs and people in the hospitality industry, we want our guests to be comfortable. We don’t want our guest to be nervous walking in or feel as if they are going to be judged based off of something they are wearing. We really want them to be comfortable in our restaurants, our homes. So, if it is something that is causing them anxiety or stress, they should just call and ask.

If they are going by old-standard definitions, “formal” typically means black tie. “Semiformal” still is a suit and tie with longer dresses for women. So, even semiformal is still, I think, far more formal than we are today as a culture. And really, dress codes or dress ideas are more about place and time than they are about what was. Golfers used to wear ties. Have golfers casualized their business because they no longer wear ties and vests? That is just what everybody wore back then. Now, I think everything reflects what people wear today.

Do restaurants in New York define “semiformal” differently than those in Chicago or Los Angeles?

I think so. And I think that is more of a microclimate, in terms of place and time. Certainly weather has a lot to do with that. In New York, I think you see a very long history, dating back to the 19th century, of fine-dining restaurants. You know what the idea of fine dining was then. Carriage House and Delmonico’s go back a long time. But in Northern California, there are not many places that would require jackets. Jeans are more acceptable. Certainly, in L.A., a more fashion-forward town, jeans are more acceptable. They are in New York as well, but you just have very small microclimates [there]. I don’t know if I would open a restaurant [today] that requires a jacket or a suit.

What was the biggest dress issue you had with patrons when you were maître d’?

The biggest issue goes back to making them feel comfortable. If you have a policy at a restaurant that requires a jacket, somebody else [may have] made the reservation for the guests and the information didn’t get passed along. Now, they show up, and they don’t have a jacket. Going about letting them know or making them aware that a jacket is required is difficult. Obviously, we have them here. We provide them for guests who show up without. We have to still make them feel very comfortable and not make them feel out of place for the rest of the evening. I think there is a way to look at it from both sides, and I think there is some burden on the restaurant industry to have some leeway to make somebody more comfortable. If you have specific attire, if you are going to make somebody feel uncomfortable, you should look to bend that rule. There is something that we talk about here often: breaking the rules to make a guest’s experience better. And that is a really good time to break the rule. There is some burden on the restaurant industry’s part to get some flexibility on either side of dressing up or dressing down.

Is that something you have to deal with on occasion at Per Se?

We do. I mean, if somebody is really uncomfortable in a jacket — it’s a three-hour experience — I don’t want him to sit there for three hours and be completely uncomfortable.

What is the most important thing for diners to keep in mind when planning their attire?

Again, be comfortable. But I think that for restaurants like ours, they’re special occasions. They are not something you’re going to eat at every single night. You’re going to go for your wife’s birthday or a special occasion celebration, so treat it as such. Dress differently. So, if you are somebody who wears a suit and tie every day, or even a business suit for women, maybe the guy takes off the tie, so he is a little bit more comfortable. It is different from his everyday routine of wearing a suit. Maybe the wife gets dressed up and puts on a dress. Or, if you work in a business that is casual and you wear jeans and a polo, get dressed up for the occasion. If it is a special celebration, do something different. I think that all of that adds to the experience of the celebration.

Photos Courtesy of Per Se

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