The man was a regular. He walked in confidently, with an air of entitlement about him. I’m not sure what he did for a living–was he a stock broker? An investment banker? A bestselling novelist?–whatever he was, it didn’t matter. He smacked of success; he glowed with accomplishment.
He moved briskly from the door to the maitre’d, an equally polished man who stood alongside an equally polished woman, there at the entrance to one of the city’s finest restaurants: Le Bernardin.
“Good afternoon, Monsieur,” said the maitre’d.
“How are you?” said the man in a deep, resounding voice, shaking the hand of the maitre’d. “I know I don’t have a reservation, but can you squeeze me in?”
The maitre’d carefully, but subtly, looked the man up and down. And the man, who possessed charisma and charm and a killer smile, lacked the one thing the maitre’d was looking for: a suit. The man was wearing shorts and an untucked buttoned-down shirt.
“I’m sorry, sir,” said the maitre’d. “Perhaps if you went home and changed?”
“Oh right,” said the man, laughing. “I’m not wearing a suit.”
“We’re sorry sir,” said the maitre’d. “We have to uphold our dress code.”
“I understand,” said the man, making his way for the door. “Thanks anyway.”
He exited and I felt like I had just witnessed something important, something I wanted to write about. As for myself, I was wearing a suit I hadn’t worn since law school, waiting to meet my friend Phoebe Damrosch. When she came, she complimented me on looking so dapper and the maitre’d happily led us to our table. Maybe it was because of what I had just witnessed, but the feeling was nothing less than triumphant.
* * * * *
The image you see above is one of the many stunning plates of food we imbibed that day in late November (yes, it's taken a while for this post to gestate). That's a milk chocolate caramel egg with sea salt; a strikingly strange combination of flavors and textures that was so harmonious, so brilliantly conceived and executed, it my greatest hope of hopes that each and every one of you reading this will get to experience it at some point in your lives. There are only two factors that will stand in your way: the first, not surprisingly, is what you have in your wallet and the second, perhaps more surprisingly, is what you have in your wardrobe. For to dine at Le Bernardin, as the gentleman learned in the opening anecdote, you have to be dressed appropriately: jacket and pants for men, pants or skirt for women.
These rules exist at all of the city's finest restaurants: Jean-Georges, Per Se, and Daniel all come to mind; and I'm sure the rule applies at many others. For many men and women, a dress code is something to be embraced. At its core, a dress code sets a mood and a tone; it makes an evening special. It ensures that all of the effort that you put into how you look--the money, the time, the thought, the energy--is rewarded by the explicit acknowledgement of the restaurant that you are "worthy" of your meal. The lavish ornamentation that makes a restaurant sparkle translates to people too; the glitzy jewelry on your neighbor's wrist might do battle with the chandelier for your attention. The glamour of fine dining, the polish of the silverware, the fizz of the champagne, is heightened--so the theory goes--by what people are wearing. And this, at least at the city's fanciest restaurants, is the status quo.
And yet, if we leave the hallowed halls of Le Bernardin and Per Se and Daniel for a moment and hop in a cab down to to the East Village, we may be surprised by the scene we'll observe at some of the city's most revered and undeniably relevant restaurants. Pop into David Chang's Ssäm Bar and what are people wearing? Jeans. T-shirts. Hats. Sneakers. An avenue over at Hearth people are wearing the same. Walk down a few blocks to Prune and some of the servers aren't even wearing bras. What's going on?
If we mosey over to the West Village and go somewhere a little more formidable, like Mario Batali's Babbo, we might see some bridge and tunnelers in their Sunday best, but at that table in the corner a 30-something guy is wearing a Metallica t-shirt. His girlfriend has a shaved head and a parade of piercings down her face. Their aesthetic matches the music and, come to think of it, matches the chef's: doesn't Mario flit about town in shorts and clogs?
And around the corner, at another formidable restaurant, Dan Barber's Blue Hill, I'm eating with Craig and his aunt and uncle (this is last month). The room is dim enough that it's not that easy to take everyone in, but for every pair of pants I see there's a pair of jeans, and sitting right behind me---I only notice him because a waiter drops a glass--is former mayor Ed Koch bundled up in an adorably tailored suit.
Ed Koch is right at home and so am I, and I'm wearing jeans. So is Craig. We're wearing jeans and stylish shirts and we've shaved and our hair is combed, but we're relaxed and happy and the evening, without the enforced formality, still feels special. My experience of the restaurant is not diminished by a lack of dress code; it is, in fact, enhanced. And thus is born a manifesto, an anti dress-code manifesto, the purpose of this post.
Good people of New York (and America and, for that matter, Europe and Asia and, well, the world), I understand that you cling to your traditions. I understand that there is something delightful about dressing up and looking nice. I applaud your designer suits and handbags and ties and scarves, I salute your jewelry, your makeup, your ornamental pins. But what's happening downtown in Manhattan is an important shift. The younger generation (and I include myself in that generation, thank you very much) is excited by food in a way that our parents weren't; we go out, first and foremost, to eat. Not just to eat, but to bravely conquer this audacious new cuisine surfacing all around us. We're eager to ingest Mario's lamb's tongues, we want extra fat in our David Chang pork buns. Getting dressed up might still be part of it, but we're looking at Gourmet, not Vogue, before we head out the door.
Our parents (or at least my parents) see dining out as a chance to escape the humdrummery of everyday life. My generation dines out not so much to escape the real world, but to engage it. I speak in generalities, of course, but it's not a coincidence that the most important new restaurants in New York--all of the ones I mentioned downtown, plus some uptown--are catering to a much younger audience. A reservation at David Chang's newest restaurant, Ko, requires a familiarity with the internet that many of our parents don't have. Our parents are confused by the passwords and logins the same way they're confused by why we're wearing jeans to dinner. This isn't a coincidence. The tides, I'm here to say, are turning.
Am I arguing against formal dress at restaurants? Not at all. My argument is egalitarian: doors open to everyone--suits and non-suits alike. I think there should be certain limitations. I'm ok with forbidding shorts--that man at Le Bernardin looked like he just stumbled in from the beach. I'm ok with requiring shoes. But should Le Bernardin turn you away for wearing jeans instead of pants? What if you're wearing jeans and a jacket? What if your pants are jeans-colored? What if your shirt looks like a t-shirt but it's really a buttoned-down shirt with hidden buttons? What if you're wearing traditional religious garb? What if you're in an iron lung?
I'm getting silly, but I think dress codes are silly and outmoded. I want everyone, regardless of dress, to have access to the world's greatest dishes. I want you to try the milk chocolate caramel egg at Le Bernardin and I want you to be able to do so without having to buy a suit. For the price of a suit, you can buy two lunches at Le Bernardin.
Part of me doesn't believe what I'm saying. We're so indoctrinated to believe that dining out means getting dressed up that it's impossible to imagine a four-star restaurant relaxing its dress code. But there are statistics that say gay marriage won't be an issue in 20 years because the younger generation embraces gay people far more willingly than the older generation; maybe that's true of dress codes too? Maybe in 20 years the Daniels and Per Ses will look a lot more like the Ssam Bars and Prunes? And if that happens, what will we have lost? What will we have gained?
The picture at the top of this post is the most compelling counter-argument to my thesis that I could come up with: there's Cary Grant, looking dapper and oozing cool in his slightly formal, perfectly pressed suit. One can't ignore the power of his presentation at table; and one can't help but feel nostalgia for a time when people dressed like that when they ate. Can we still celebrate that? Absolutely. But should we impose it?
My argument is: no.
[NOTE: If you don't have the wardrobe OR the wallet, you can attempt the milk chocolate caramel egg at home with the recipe from Le Bernardin pastry chef Michael Laiskonis's blog here. Please dress appropriately when consuming.]
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