17 April 2011

Jackets-Required Fine Dining Is Dying. Does Anybody Care?

You don’t have to be very old to remember a time when certain Boston restaurants had a jackets-required rule. Locke-Ober, the Dining Room at the old Ritz-Carlton (now the Taj), and L’Espalier (in its original location) were three notable examples of rooms that insisted that male customers wear a tailored sport coat or suit to gain admittance. The maître d' literally would not seat you in the dining room without one. If you didn’t have the foresight to wear a jacket, or were arrogant enough to think they’d bend the rules for you, you faced a choice: go home and change, don one of their humiliating, ill-fitting loaner blazers, or dine somewhere else.

And they were dead-serious about it. Mick Jagger was famously denied entrance to even the bar at the Ritz in his t-shirt and jeans; being rich, famous, and a guest at the hotel didn’t matter. At Locke-Ober, that hallowed Downtown refuge for Boston’s vanishing Brahmin class, I witnessed many a host-stand scene featuring a young, well-heeled customer arguing in vain that his jeans cost $300, why couldn’t he get a table? But the jacket was non-negotiable. The owners were throwing a specific kind of party, and the invitation said “semi-formal attire”. You could get with the program, or take your business elsewhere.

That once-sacred condition of entry to the city’s temples of gastronomy is rapidly going the way of the dodo, the travel agent, and the landline phone. L’Espalier moved from its romantic but cramped quarters in a Back Bay mansion three years ago to spacious (if comparatively charmless) digs in the nearby Mandarin Oriental; dropping the dress code was a condition imposed by the hotel, which wanted its guests to have unfettered access. Before it became a Taj, the old Ritz closed its dining room and dropped the bar’s dress code; to the chagrin of old-timers, you could get a drink there in jeans and no jacket. But the true death-knell just sounded this month: Locke-Ober, the last restaurant in Boston to enforce a strict dress code, recently reopened after a brief hiatus, and its new owner has shot the jackets-required rule, though jeans and sneakers remain verboten.

Today, a few Boston restaurants say “jackets suggested”, but even the most casually-dressed patrons rarely get turned away. I recently dined at luxury steakhouse KO Prime next to a large table of businessmen in golf shirts and baseballs caps. In the new location of L’Espalier, one of the most formal and expensive restaurants in the city, I’ve seen customers in hooded sweatshirts, rocker gear (ragged jeans, motorcycle boots, band t-shirts), track suits, and head-to-toe Ed Hardy, complete with matching trucker hats. In the summer, it’s not unusual at places that charge $40 for entrees to see men wearing shorts and flip-flops that expose gnarly, ungroomed toes. (There’s a reason most fancy-restaurant dress codes are aimed explicitly at men; women seem to dress better without coaching.)

How did fine dining go from an occasion for your Sunday best to the equivalent of a Jersey Shore casting call? A few things are going on:
  • American dress sense has gotten steadily more informal. A hundred years ago, a gentleman wouldn’t think of dining out at a fancy restaurant in less than white tie – the Fred Astaire tailcoat, white pique formal shirt, vest and bowtie. To the horror of many at the time, this gave way to the tail-less dinner jacket, white pleated shirt, and black bowtie. Eyebrows were raised and tongues clucked again when men stopped “dressing for dinner”, i.e., changing into a tux from their daytime business suit and necktie. The next horror showed up only in a sport coat and slacks, first with a tie, but soon in a turtleneck or open-collared shirt. From there, it was a few short steps to no jacket at all, just a golf shirt, then t-shirt, then neon mesh wife-beater.
  • High-end dining is changing. Many restaurateurs, younger independent chef/owners especially, have fled the formality of the old Michelin-starred haute-cuisine palace, with its stiffness, white tablecloths and 20-piece place settings, preferring the casual conviviality of the bistro. While the food itself isn’t necessarily casual– it may in fact reflect just as much laborious technique, costly ingredients, and artful plating as the old school -- owners want the ambiance to be more relaxed. Even Boston’s Oak Bar, one of the city’s last surviving stately old rooms, is about to undergo a casual makeover. The tuxedoed waiter armed with a silver crumber has been pink-slipped.
  • Restaurants can't afford to turn away the business. Between the depressed economy, rising food costs, and new expenses like OpenTable and Groupon, many restaurants are struggling to stay profitable and win new customers. Given similar choices, customers will often opt for the restaurant that doesn’t make them dress up. As a recent Wall Street Journal article noted, even restaurateurs who cherish tradition and think that well-dressed patrons improve the atmosphere can no longer bear the competitive disadvantage of a dress code.
Many customers argue vehemently against dress codes, too. “I hate dressing up; I’m so happy I can have a nice meal and feel comfortable.” “Dress codes are elitist, designed to keep the hoi-polloi out. We’re a democratic society; you should be able to dine wherever you want to without owning an expensive suit.” “Go ahead and dress up if that’s what floats your boat, but don’t make me do it. You should be focusing on your companions and your dinner, not what I’m wearing.”

At the risk of sounding like a creaky grandpa, moaning that the world is going to hell and young people these days don’t know how to behave, I confess to some regret over this development. Americans have progressed with informality in dress to the point where we appear to have lost our sense of occasion entirely. We go to church in sweatpants, answer court summonses in novelty t-shirts, wear pajamas to the supermarket, sport jeans at funerals. More formal dress once symbolized the differentness of certain occasions from the humdrum social interactions of quotidian life. We’ve flattened that out: one loose, casual size now fits all.

A consequence of this uniformity is that special-occasion dining doesn’t feel as special anymore. I think a roomful of dressed-up patrons feels very different from one in which some folks are dressed up and others down. I get annoyed by people who show up at a Halloween party, black-tie wedding, or opening-night gala without applying enough effort to their attire to reflect the spirit of the occasion. A jackets-suggested restaurant is also a sort of costume party, and folks that flout the dress code are detracting from the atmosphere. That couple over there is trying to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary, and you look like you just strolled off the 18th hole? That strikes me as lazy and ungracious.

In certain settings, overly casual dress can be like too much perfume; there are limits to how much you can consciously shut it out of your senses. Try not to think about an elephant; it can be hard to pretend you can’t see that dude’s armpit hair right in your line of sight. Good manners are designed to help minimize the inevitable friction that results in public life, and they used to imply more effort than simply asking your neighbors to ignore you. Nice restaurants have joined the growing ranks of places in which American men no longer feel obligated to put on long pants, and I think that’s a shame.

I also worry that our all-casual, all-the-time sensibility is related to a broader coarsening of our culture, the decline of civility toward strangers in public life, the bubble of self-entitlement that a growing number of people appear to live in. I suspect the absence of a sense of decorum, an underdeveloped belief that some situations demand more formal behavior and dress than others, might be of a piece with our society's increasing rudeness and self-centeredness.

Ultimately, the death of jackets-required won’t make a huge dent in my life. I spend most of my time in and generally prefer more casual places. My professional restaurant reviewing duties are evenly split between fine dining and budget-priced restaurants, but even in the fancy joints, what excites me most is the food, not the ambiance. I understand how we got to this point, and respect restaurateurs' decisions to relax their standards. I personally wouldn’t mind if we rolled the sartorial clock back to the Mad Men era, arguably the last high point in American dress sense, but I know that ship has sailed.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that something small but significant is being lost, and once gone, it will be gone forever. What remains of our dining-out culture will be slightly sadder, shabbier -- a bit more vulgar. It’s not the end of civilization, just the passing of a small grace, another tiny corner of a more genteel world sacrificed for our schlubby comfort. I think maybe I’ll put on a suit, head over to the Oak Bar, and have a drink there before it becomes just one more place where a jacket looks as quaintly old-fashioned as Don Draper’s tie bar. Sic transit gloria.