Tag Archives: ” restaurant dress codes

“Come as you are”

ComeasyouAreFayettevilleNC

Before restaurants adopted the expression, it was used by churches, with a double meaning that referred both to dress and to the shame of past deeds.

However, in restaurants it simply meant that patrons could wear their everyday casual clothes.

In the hospitality field, the slogan took hold first in the West. In the teens and 1920s, it was commonly used by hotels and resorts. It may seem odd that a resort where people swim, golf, and play tennis would require women to wear dresses and men to wear jackets to dinner, but that was not uncommon in the 1920s, especially in the East. In fact, the custom can still be found today, but it stands as a quaint re-enactment of past times as much as anything.

comeasyouareLeaderMC

The western attitude toward casual dress in hotels, resorts, and restaurants spread slowly and was not without some resistance. Oddly, it met the greatest resistance from a business operating in the West: the Fred Harvey company that ran eating houses for the Santa Fe railroad.

The Harvey company required men to wear jackets in its dining rooms – even before electric fans and regardless of hot weather. If a man refused to wear a jacket, he would be served only at an adjoining lunch counter. In the early 1920s the Harvey company fought an Oklahoma Corporation Commission decision that threw out Harvey’s jacket rule. But Oklahoma’s supreme court ruled in favor of Harvey, declaring that the company had the right to require jackets. “Unlike the lower animals, we all demand the maintenance of some style and fashion in the dining-room,” said the decision.

Full-scale formal dress – white tie and tails for men and women wearing long evening gowns – was never common in this country. Nonetheless etiquette advisors who wrote for women’s magazines liked to suggest the opposite, flattering (and confusing) their readers with rules followed only by the upper, upper reaches of high society. However, even if formal wear was rarely necessary, there was an expectation that diners in a nice restaurant or hotel dining room would at least wear what we now refer to as business attire. The St. Regis Hotel in New York City advertised widely in 1908 that it was a comfortable, homey hotel opposed to snobbish dress rules, yet making it clear that “The wearing of a business suit bars no one from admission or service.”

As widely as she was published and read, etiquette maven Emily Post never seemed to be in tune with most Americans. During the depths of the Depression she continued to insist that women should wear suits, hats, and gloves to a restaurant lunch and dinner dresses in the evening. Even at a summer resort, she declared, women should wear cover-up shoes when dining out. “Bare-toed sandals with evening dresses are too revolting to mention,” she wrote.

comeasyouarePortland1952

Following World War II as young families were established and the suburbs spread, things began to change radically. The restaurant industry realized that finding a babysitter or dressing up the whole family was a barrier to restaurant going for many. Instead families were turning to informal roadside places. “Drive-ins, with their motto of ‘Come as You Are, Eat in Your Car,’ have a siren call for parents with insoluble sitter problems,” observed the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1960.

Chains also got the message. A 1963 Bonanza advertisement proclaimed low-priced steak dinners plus “No tipping – Children ½ price – Come as you are – Western atmosphere.”

comeasyouarelittleblackdressMeanwhile, in the late 1960s, in the midst of the hippie upheaval, Gloria Vanderbilt recommended the “little black dress” as always correct for dining in a fine restaurant. But informality was winning as women wearing pants gained acceptance even in luxury New York City restaurants in the early 1970s, a rule change stimulated no doubt by a damaging recession.

By the late 1970s dress codes had been relaxed to the point that many upscale restaurants were minimally satisfied if their customers at least wore “dressy casual,” which usually meant designer jeans, shirts with collars, and no short-shorts, tank tops, or halter tops. Some chains accepted t-shirts as long as they weren’t white, but everyone agreed that patrons had to wear some kind of shirt and shoes.

Today, as Alison Pearlman has written in her fine book Smart Casual, the bond between fancy formal restaurants and gourmet dining has been loosened further by affluent young professionals in the creative industries. If they wear hoodies and jeans to work they expect to do the same as they sample innovative dishes at a hip restaurant.
comeasyouare1899
And yet, along with the relentless trend toward casual dress, the tendency to show off in public persists, possibly as strongly as in the late 1890s when women of New York’s “smart set” took to the cafes to display the latest fashions.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under chain restaurants, drive-ins, elite restaurants, family restaurants, patrons, restaurant customs, restaurant etiquette

Dressing for dinner

FarmersinCafe

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.

Rector's1913Geo.HectorInc

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.

Pittari's1963NewOrleansA 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.

SultansTableRestDunesHotel

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

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Filed under patrons, restaurant customs