No Shoes, No Shirt, No Tie, No Coat, No Waistcoat, No Cufflinks, No Service

While some people enjoy dressing up to go out to eat, the large number of casual dining restaurants seems to indicate most folks prefer to don something more casual when they dine out. Recent years have seen fine dining restaurants relaxing their standards, with diners commonly prioritizing comfort over appearance. This leaves some restaurants trying to balance customer preference with an upscale atmosphere.

Well-heeled History

The upper classes first set the standard for how to dress when dining out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because the rich generally ate at fancy restaurants, they donned tuxedos and evening gowns. However, this standard suffered during World War I and never fully recovered. Coats and ties for men became more common, while women wore day dresses and hats.

From there, men’s fashion mostly stagnated while women’s dresses continued to evolve. The Great Depression put a dent in the upper class, and fashion for all economic strata fell by the wayside during the difficulties of World War II. While some fine dining establishments tried to continue their formal dress expectations, they soon mostly relented, allowing customers to come in more comfortable dressy casual clothing. There have been a few holdouts – from Daniel in New York City to the U.S. Capitol’s Senate Dining Room – but in recent years, many restaurants have slowly given into the pressure from customers to allow a wider range in dress.

Keep to the Code

A small but determined cadre of fine dining restaurants, most of which have been open for decades, have maintained their semi-formal dress codes. One of the most common arguments that arises with these restaurants is that they must sometimes turn underdressed customers away, possibly losing business. We spoke with Joshua Miller, general manager of Chicago’s Spiaggia, about how the restaurant handled its dress code, which it loosened in 2014 by eliminating the requirement that men wear coats.

“Back then it rarely happened,” Miller explains when asked about turning people away. “People didn’t just show up in shorts. Everyone just kind of knew to be dressed appropriately.”

“When we would furnish the coats to the guest, the bigger problem was that you’d give the guest this coat, they’d begrudgingly put it on, and as soon as they get to the table, it’s going on the back of the chair,” recalls Miller. “I mean, try telling Mick Jagger that he needs to put his coat back on.”

Luckily, it’s rare that people dress in a manner that forces employees to make the decision to turn them away.

“If somebody is in something wildly inappropriate, I’m going to find a back booth to put you in. I’ve turned down one person in the last two years here, and it’s because they brought a pet with them,” laughs Miller. “I say, ‘Well, I can’t let your pet in the restaurant.’ They’re like, ‘Well, can you check the pet?’ No, I can’t check your pet.”

Changing Ties

As the dining scene as a whole continues to trend more casual, those restaurants that have held onto their dress codes are starting to roll back their requirements. When Spiaggia underwent a renovation in 2014, it reopened without its dress code that required men to wear a jacket.

“When you’re looking at the dining scene here in Chicago, it’s a whole different world than it was 30 years ago,” explains Miller. “It was just time. It was time to change and get more congruent to what’s going on here.”

However, the lack of a dress code doesn’t mean that diners should show up in shorts and flip flops.

“This is the verbiage I would use when they ask what the dress code is: I say business casual,” says Miller. “We encourage our guests to be dressed to the occasion that they’re celebrating.”

Miller points out that, in many cases, dropping the dress code can help some customers feel less apprehensive about dining in an upscale restaurant.

“When you have this showcase of a dining room and you have all your waiters in jackets, and you have these elegantly, meticulously plated dishes, the last thing I want is for somebody to be intimidated,” says Miller. “I think of this young couple that I had from Wisconsin, and they were down here on their honeymoon. They come in and they look bewildered. They were just so out of their league, and I put myself in their position, where I was 20 years ago. I just walked up to the table with a bottle of Maker’s Mark. I poured them each a shot, I had a little shot of apple juice for myself, and I threw it back with them. All of a sudden you see them loosen up, and they’ve been back three times since then. They asked me, ‘Why are you treating us like this?’ You’re guests! You’re guests in my home. Make yourself at home, feel comfortable. That’s why there was that change in the dress code: We want people to be comfortable.”

A “Northern Wisconsin boy” himself, Miller acknowledges a younger version of himself might not have felt comfortable in a restaurant that required him to put on his best clothes for dinner. His support for loosening the dress code is also about making sure men who may only put on a suit a handful of times in their lives for special occasions know that doesn’t mean the world of fine dining isn’t open to them.

While some may lament the loss of the elegance of “dressing for dinner,” many argue that making these fine dining experiences more accessible is better for both the businesses and those who might otherwise feel too intimidated to give such restaurants a try.

“It’s an Italian restaurant,” says Miller. “It’s all about family, it’s about people, it’s about food and sharing an experience together, and if you’re more comfortable in a polo and jeans, so be it.”

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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