Fine Dining Gets Dressed-Down

Even the finest of restaurants have been forced to embrace our dress-down culture.
By Janelle Erlichman Diamond - October 2010

Fine Dining Gets Dressed-Down

Even the finest of restaurants have been forced to embrace our dress-down culture.
By Janelle Erlichman Diamond - October 2010

The note taped to the host stand at The Prime Rib says it all.

“We fought the battle the longest, but we surrender!” it reads. “It’s now an utterly informal world, they wear whatever they wish. They want a warm, easy, friendly atmosphere, even in ‘fine dining.’ So we decided to go with the flow, to lighten up.”

Yes, after almost half a century, The Prime Rib has switched to business casual.

“I’d like you to understand how monumental this [decision] was,” says David Derewicz, general manager of the august dining establishment. “Change is slow at The Prime Rib. It almost stands still here. And that’s why people like it.”

In general, dress codes have gone the way of rotary phones and VCRs. At today’s restaurants—including the finest dining establishments—you’re likely to see rumpled khakis and Hawaiian shirts suited more to weekend errands than special occasions. And it’s not restricted to restaurants: At theaters, orchestras, and even places of worship, it’s become the norm to sport jeans, T-shirts, baseball caps, and team jerseys.

Most places have given up and embraced a come-as-you-are attitude. That includes Charleston, The Black Olive, and The Capital Grille. In fact, now that The Prime Rib has changed its rule, The Oregon Grille stands as the only local restaurant that requires gentlemen to wear jackets after 5 p.m. in the fine dining room.

Nattily dressed Prime Rib regular Ken Himmelstein mourns, but grudgingly accepts, the shift in attitude. “I am admittedly old school,” says Himmelstein, who owns Samuel Parker Clothier, an upscale haberdashery. “But I think there is a time and a place for everything.”

The clothier—who obviously benefits from well-dressed gents—personally can’t imagine eating at a downtown restaurant without a jacket. He knows not everyone is like him—and even understands the fashion appeal of shirttails outside the trousers—but he found himself especially appalled at a recent visit to The Capital Grille. At the table next to him were a group of well-dressed women eating with “mature men” attired in Ravens jerseys, shorts, and—gasp!—flip-flops.

“It offends me,” he sighs. “I don’t want to see guys’ legs and I surely don’t want to see their feet when I’m ordering a $100 bottle of wine.”

Indeed, if restaurant owners had their druthers, the jacket would still be required at fine dining establishments. For starters, it adds to the specialness of the atmosphere. Also, there’s a prevailing wisdom that people all dressed up for an evening are inclined to spend more money.

But what is an owner to do in a world of $200 jeans and casual Fridays (that have now become more like casual Mondays-through-Fridays)?

“One thing I miss from when I was a kid is the implied respect for other people,” says Tony Foreman, co-owner and wine director of Foreman Wolf. At Charleston restaurant—arguably one of the nicest dining rooms in Baltimore—most guests do go out of their way to dress appropriately. But some people, says Foreman, “walk in the door in anything. It’s a shame. You have this beautiful room and people who have waited a number of years to dine and someone comes cruising in in cargo shorts.”

And although the restaurant has no explicit dress code, Foreman has turned people away, “if it’s going to be offensive for other people.”

At Milan, an upscale lounge in Little Italy, guests are asked to respect the “food meets fashion” ambiance.

The general rule is no baseball caps and no sneakers, says owner Curlee Smittie Jr., but there are some exceptions. Smittie leaves the final call up to his manager on duty.

“A really tricky game is played,” he says. He offers an example: What to do when a good-looking guy shows up in a tie, button down, and designer jeans—but he’s wearing Pumas? “It’s a Catch-22,” he says. “It’s all about instinct.”

And survival.

“We’re a business first,” says Derewicz, who has been with The Prime Rib for 33 years. And they were losing business with their jacket requirement. Client meetings were taking place at other restaurants with a more relaxed dress code. He kept a list of over 20 people who told him “if you drop the jacket policy we’ll come back.”

Last summer, with little fanfare but quite a bit of internal angst, the restaurant relaxed its no-jacket rule for the month of August and decided to “just keep it like that.”

Since the change, “we’ve not lost a guest,” says Derewicz, a man who once put a sports coat on dinner guest Ray Lewis. “He was very cooperative,” remembers Derewicz. And fitting the strapping Lewis was no problem. “We do—we did—have jackets ranging from 36 short to 68 long,” he says. “I took this very seriously. I take everything seriously.”

Once the dress code shift was seriously being considered, Derewicz made dozens of phone calls to longtime guests to ask their opinions. Most said they didn’t mind the change as long as the restaurant itself—with its white tablecloths, dark leather chairs, grand piano, and tuxedoed waitstaff—stayed the same.

There’s no question that the relaxed dress code is a generational thing. The old timers like their scotch and soda, sports coats, and traditions. The newbies like polo shirts, craft beers, and the next big thing.

Teri Agins, The Wall Street Journal’s former fashion reporter and current “Ask Teri” columnist, says the younger generation just doesn’t know any better. They were brought up during the dot-com heyday of T-shirts and flip-flops—where wealthy and accomplished men like Bill Gates didn’t have to dress for success to be a success. “Anything goes but nudity,” she laughs.

Tony Foreman agrees that the younger generation is trying to define respect on their own terms.

“Now people work pretty hard to show you they can do whatever they want to do,” he says. And while a well-tailored suit used to be the ultimate sign of power and wealth, “There’s been a huge generation shift and power shift,” he sighs.

Ken Himmelstein, for one, hopes there will be a bit of push-back against the dress-down revolution. “It got too casual,” he says. “I don’t consider shorts and a Ravens jersey a hip outfit. I don’t know what’s wrong with trousers.”

At Milan, turning away customers is never easy. “My dress code has lost me some business,” says Smittie. “But I’m going to gain a lot more in the long run—a certain standard and crowd base I’m comfortable with.”

On a recent night at The Prime Rib, the scene was pretty much the same as it’s ever been—lots of men in jackets and ties, some dress shirts and slacks, but now the occasional khakis and polo shirts thrown in.

Turns out, people are pretty capable of policing themselves, even without a formal dress code.

And the management is beginning to feel settled with its decision.

“When you’re an icon, things are much, much more deliberate,” says Derewicz. “You’re dealing with a reputation.”

While some traditionalists may argue that The Prime Rib’s reputation has been tarnished a bit, he feels that that restaurant has “moved ahead and ultimately strengthened our brand.”

But don’t expect to see any other changes surface.

Says Derewicz firmly, “We’ve been pushed as far as we’ll be pushed.”

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