In the vast majority of eating places customers never had to be told to “come as you are.” That’s how they were going to come – or else they weren’t coming at all. Farmers wearing overalls were likely to show up in small town cafes, while white collar workers in shirtsleeves grabbed seats in city lunchrooms.
Nevertheless, there was a segment of society that “dressed” for dinner. People of high society were accustomed to donning formal wear for dinner parties given in private homes. Then, as New York society began to expand beyond “the 400″ in the late 1890s, growing ranks of wealthy newcomers adopted formal dress for dinners in hotel dining rooms and swanky restaurants.
In the late 1890s men began to wear tuxedos for such outings. Women wore long gowns, cut lower than their daytime dresses. [Rector’s, 1913, illustrated] But the era of luxury dressiness was brief. After WWI, with prohibition forcing the closure of many fine restaurants and “lobster palaces,” more informal clothing became acceptable in most restaurants. What was known as afternoon wear – coats and neckties for men and daytime dresses and hats for women – became the new standard. But even that dress standard tended to erode.
It isn’t as easy to enforce a dress code as it might seem. As long as a restaurant isn’t using a dress code as a foil for illegal discrimination, it can set the dress bar as high as it wants. But will customers constantly challenge it? Even worse, will they shun the restaurant entirely?
Rejection of the Café de l’Opera’s formal wear requirement was cited as one reason for its sudden demise in NYC in 1910. And the 1930s Depression encouraged a lower standard. After World War II some predicted a return to elegance, but that proved shaky. Many well-established fine restaurants struggled with turtleneck-wearing male guests in the 1960s and 1970s. At New York’s “21″ the maitre d’ developed a practice of requiring necktie-less men to put on a hideously garish tie that he provided. This had the effect of either making them (a) leave, or (b) feel so embarrassed they never dared come without a tie again. Other places relented and admitted guests in “dressy casual” wear.
A new restaurant wishing to enter the esoteric fine dining ranks, underwritten by a dining room of well-dressed guests, has to ask itself if it can pull it off. If it does not draw the “top-drawer” clientele it aims for it may find its dress code impossible to enforce. For instance, resorting to posting a “Dress Code for Ladies” notice near the front door, as a San Diego reviewer said of a restaurant there in 1981, is “simply tacky.” It is scarcely better than a sign reading “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”
Likewise, a restaurant may portray itself as elegant, on a postcard, publicity photo, or website, but rarely will the actual guests look quite so sophisticated as those pictured. And, needless to say, fancy dress does not in itself project elegance.
Today there is a small top tier of restaurants whose guests would not dare to wear shorts, t-shirts, baseball caps, or overlarge rubber-soled shoes. But, most restaurants are far more informal. Overall, “come as you are” – a phrase first used by churches — has remained in effect.
The phrase itself attained widespread use by restaurants in the 1960s when it appeared in advertisements for suburban establishments wishing to attract families. A new segment of chain restaurants came into being, a few notches less casual than fast food establishments, but entirely non-intimidating in their standardized cuisine, friendly service, and “fun” decor. Philip Langdon, in his book Orange Roofs and Golden Arches, sees the “chain dinnerhouses” as coming from the West (where restaurant dress rules were always more relaxed). Examples included Victoria Station, originating in San Francisco, and Steak & Ale, from Dallas.
At the present moment, at least, it is difficult to imagine a return to turn-of-the-century formality. I’d guess that even the 1% don’t like to dress up.
© Jan Whitaker, 2013