Monday, April 6, 2009

Proper Attire in a Restaurant

I am not sure how she stumbled upon my CookAppeal, LLC website, but a very polite journalism student emailed me one day and ask me a very good question. "What are your thoughts on dining out and dress etiquette"? She was writing a paper for one of her classes, and needed some input from professionals. What to wear out in the public eye can be a tricky question all around, because every generation creates its own unique style of etiquette. I remember taking a tour of the mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, the guide mentioned that as the gilded era came to a close people let loose, parents began to let their guard down on discipline; then we definitely saw how fashion, attitudes, and the economy has affected dining establishments.

I asked Ms. Mitchem if I could see her paper after it was written, and would she mind if I used it on my blog...

“How to Dress When Dining Out”

by Jessica Mitchem

Miriam knew tonight was the night. She had been dating Rob for three years, and tonight he asked her to join him for dinner at a quaint little restaurant they had wanted to try for a while. He had also delivered flowers to her at work.

Rob had called the four-star restaurant in Memphis, Tenn., over a month ago to make reservations. From the outside, the restaurant looked like any other. There was nothing fancy about the building, and the owners did not offer valet service. Nonetheless, Rob asked for the best table, with dim light, and a little privacy. He knew Miriam was the one, and he planned to propose the night of the reservation in June.

Upon their arrival, they were greeted by the maître d' and were quickly turned away because of their attire. Miriam and Rob were embarrassed and in shock that a restaurant would have such standards. While walking arm-in-arm back to the car, Rob felt like kicking himself for not asking such a simple question as, “Do you have a dress code?”.

“I think I was the reason we weren’t let in,” Rob said. “I was wearing casual khaki shorts and a pull over. Miriam had on a sundress.”

“But it was a cotton dress, and I was wearing flip flops,” Miriam said. “We both looked a little dressed down for the place.”

Like Rob and Miriam, many people are not aware that restaurants have dress codes. At the same time, some people may not try upper-scale restaurants because they are intimidated by the dress code. They fear they will be dressed inappropriately and don’t bother going or calling to find out. (more below)

Why are you expected to dress up when dining out?

Chefs put extensive time and effort into their culinary creations, so patrons are expected to show respect to the chef and his food. Dressing up requires some energy and thought, just like the time it takes to make the magnificent food you go to enjoy. Also, dressing up makes the occasion more memorable. If you have taken special care to put on a stylish ensemble, you are more likely to enjoy your fine dining experience.

Elizabeth Stelling owns CookAppeal, LLC, a boutique catering and customized chef service in Princeton, New Jersey. She says our society’s idea of dress and fashion has changed drastically over the decades. “I think the times have shifted into a more casual dress approach and it will continue for years to come,” Stelling says.

While a more relaxed style is becoming more accepted, manners are not to be overlooked. No matter the rating, you should be considerate of other diners, servers and chefs. Helena Echlin, writer of the Table Manners column on, says, “We dress up as a mark of respect to the restaurant and all the labor its staff has gone to. It's also because part of the fun of going out to dine is people-watching, and that's less fun if everyone is wearing jeans or sweatpants.”

What is the Five-Star Rating System?

According to the Mobil Travel Guide web site, fine dining restaurants are evaluated on “several hundred objective restaurant criteria, including food quality and presentation, service, and atmosphere to provide a rating that you can depend on.” The higher the stars, the better the restaurant scored in these areas and the finer the service, food and wine should be. Although each restaurant is scored objectively, Mobil Inspectors are highly trained in culinary arts and restaurant hospitality. To find ratings of fine restaurants in your area, visit the Mobil Travel Guide web page at

Fine dining is about enjoying great food, environment and company. Restaurant patrons dress up to enhance the experience. Pretty clothes enhance the way you feel about yourself. Restaurant owners put great effort into making their establishments as enjoyable as possible. In return, they expect their customers to put forth their best dining etiquette and attire.

Echlin wrote, “People shouldn’t go to fancy restaurants dressed like slobs. Paying for a service isn’t an excuse to be rude, and it is rude.”

What is expected at a Three-Star Restaurant?

Think business casual. A nice pair of pants and a cute top is acceptable for dining at a three-star restaurant. No matter the rating, you want to look neat and polished when enjoying a restaurant. Casual clothing like shorts, T-shirts, and flip flops should enjoy keep their place in the closet while you are dining out at a three-star restaurant.

Deborah Lockridge, co-founder of the web site in Birmingham, Ala., says, “In general, dress codes are much more lax than they used to be, but personally, I'd rather feel overdressed than under dressed.”

What is expected at a Four-Star Restaurant?

Dining at a four-star venue requires a little dressier approach. Assume the proper attire is semi-formal, or somewhere between business-casual and formal. It’s likely that a nice dress will be more appropriate than slacks, but that’s not to say you can’t wear slacks.

Stelling says a European attitude of comfortable chic has started to take over. She says she has seen a decline in the expectations of fine dining establishments as she has traveled the world. Nice pants and a blouse have become acceptable attire.

However, you want to skip the standard work outfit, so leave that collared button-down at home. If you are dining in the evening, you want to wear a jacket over your outfit, and most likely the restaurant will have a coat closet where you leave it while you occupy a table. The coat closet is just one of many luxury amenities a fine dining establishment offers, and it’s designed to help you enjoy the atmosphere without your area being cluttered.

In another article, Echlin wrote, “You’re there for the overall experience, not just what you put in your mouth.” In a four-star setting, you will experience a highly-trained staff to provide personal service to each table. The food will be creative and perfectly seasoned. Your outfit should reflect the environment.

What is expected at a Five-Star Restaurant?

Once upon a few decades ago, women wore their finest attire anytime they left their homes. Even if leaving just to go grocery shopping. Naturally, they would wear this attire when dining out. Although we aren’t expected to dress like that anymore, we should keep their idea in mind.

In the evening at a five-star dining hall, hostesses will still offer to check your coat. For this “elite group,” as the Mobil Travel Guide has categorized it, the five-star experience should be flawless. The décor is elegant, service is exceptional, and the food and wine leave nothing to be desired. Dinner dining attire requires superlative style and thought to match the nearly perfect environment. You should choose something classy and timeless.

How are you expected to know what to wear?

Since the rules are not written in stone and more restaurants recommend a dress code rather than require one, it may take a little guess work to determine what to wear. Lockridge says, “It depends on where you are, the time of year, and the restaurant itself. For summertime, a bit more casual attire tends to be accepted at fine restaurants. Around the holidays, you’d better dress up more or you'll feel out of place.”

Also, word of mouth travels fast. If you heard of a restaurant from a friend or co-worker, ask her what to wear. When in doubt, choose the little black dress. Pair it up with fashionable accessories and stylish heels. If you still aren’t comfortable with that, call the restaurant and ask about their expected dress code.

“If you are enjoying yourself, then I say all that matters is the company you keep,” Stelling said.

Had Rob and Miriam known about restaurant guides and fine dining expectations, their momentous night could have been more enjoyable. Instead of proposing over dim candle light in a romantic corner of a restaurant, he proposed over a pizza delivery box in his apartment. Next time they wish to eat out at an unfamiliar place, Rob is sure to call ahead.

Bio info:

Jessica Mitchem, 24
Northport, AL
Senior at University of Alabama, Journalism major

Jessica raises a good question for us all. Should we wear what makes us feel more comfortable? Does world trends and movie stars direct our fashion sense when we dine out? What do you think? Do you follow old school on this? Apples to Apples? Do we still call up our friends to see what they are wearing to an event we both might attend?

I actually think that most of the time we do show up and if we see others are either down dressed or more formal than us, we feel uncomfortable, and what truly matters is what I told Jessica...the company is what is important, so not only call up the restaurant, but ask your dining partner what they think, and if you come to an agreement; then just go have a great time!

Thanks Jessica for letting me be a part of this! -Chef E