On decorum: Talking Restaurants with Nancy Kruse and Lisa Jennings

Is it time for American diners to put on proper clothes and start behaving a bit nicer in restaurants? Some operators are bringing back dress codes and more. But it may be too late to turn back from our sweatpants-wearing ways.
restaurant service
What diners really want is the human touch. / Photo: Shutterstock.

Editor's note: RB Executive Editor Lisa Jennings and RB menu trends columnist Nancy Kruse will discuss various issues in the restaurant industry in their new column, "Talking Restaurants with Nancy Kruse and Lisa Jennings." 

Holeman and Finch Public House in Atlanta positions itself as a convivial place to gather and promises that “you are always welcome.” Well, yes, except for one caveat: Patrons must observe the operation’s dress code. Said code is pretty specific and rules out a host of popular style choices like athletic wear, cut-off shorts and shirts that expose one’s midriff. Oh, and caps are verboten in the dining room.

While you are always stylish, Lisa, restrictions like these really put a crimp in my own personal sartorial statements. And there seem to be many more of them, as restaurateurs reassert sovereignty over their dining rooms in the wake of the Covid shutdown.

Consider that The New York Times published a story that referred to our collective dress habits during the shutdown as an “epoch of record-level dowdiness” and advised diners to ditch the sweatshirts and flip-flops because restaurant dress codes are back. The article named a host of operations around the country that are imposing such dictates and quoted consumer opinions, both pro and con.

On the pro side, many diners profess to like the opportunity to get all dolled up, while naysayers note that such rules can be seen as biased since they typically exclude apparel that’s the uniform of choice for legions of young people of color.

Other areas of consumer comportment are also being reconsidered, as at Caterina’s in Fort Worth, Tex. In addition to jackets being required, the restaurant provides a handy pouch in which patrons must store their cellphones for the duration of their meals. Since this puts the kibosh on Insta-happy patrons clicking away, the restaurant helpfully sends an email the next day with photos of the dishes they enjoyed.

So, a couple of things strike me as interesting here. The first is that these new rules of the road are being applied to a wide range of operations, not just to temples of fine dining.

The second is that protocols like these seem to fly in the face of the decades-long trend toward casualization that gave its name to an entire segment of the industry and begot a class of restaurants that were initially dubbed fern bar, based on the ubiquity of greenery in their dining rooms.

The raison d’etre of casual-dining operations was to cast off the stiffness and strictures associated with much of restaurant dining in times past and to cater to an emerging horde of hormonal Baby Boomers looking for cool cocktails and social connection, not necessarily in that order.

This past February, The Cut, New York Magazine’s style and culture site, published a list of 140 new etiquette rules. Advice proffered ranged from why it’s okay to tell a white lie to ditch a boring date, to the finer points of ghosting, to why one should never address women as “ladies” (Hint: it’s “oddly creepy” when it comes from a man), to how white people should always clearly pronounce 50 Cent when referring to the rapper.

Not surprisingly, a whole raft of how-to’s covered restaurant behavior, and the tipping recommendations, rules number 84-91 on the list, ignited a firestorm of criticism and complaints of the sort addressed in RB’s recent and masterful overview of the subject.

But the authors were largely mum on the subject of dress, beyond a rueful observation that contemporary diners “treat everything like their living room” that implied an overall lack of decorum and taste.

At this point, I’m curious to get your take, Lisa, especially since you reside in Los Angeles, the very capital of casual coolness.

Do you think the current preoccupation with politesse represents a long-term change or is it just a temporary reaction to the fact that many diners apparently reverted to their more primitive selves during lockdown?

And is it even remotely possible to roll back casualization, the shift in traditional manners and mores that has impacted not only restaurants, but also society at large for decades?

For what it’s worth, it’s not just regular folks like us who are badly in need of social guidance. The World Economic Forum, which is held annually in Davos, Switzerland and draws international mucky-mucks from the worlds of finance, politics and academia, published its dress code for the meeting last winter. To wit: “refined European business semi-casual.”

Nice to know that restaurateurs aren’t the only ones struggling with this issue. And while I’m not sure exactly how to parse the muddy WEF dictate, I suspect it meant that Elon Musk had to leave his cut-offs and flip-flops at home.

Love, Nancy

Dear Nancy:

How appropriate that I respond to your concerns about casualization the week of National Flip Flop Day, which is really a thing, coined by Tropical Smoothie Café. It’s officially the first Wednesday after Memorial Day, which I suppose is as good a day to wear flip-flops on a quest for smoothies as any day.

Of course, here in California, flip-flops are perfectly acceptable as business casual attire, so long as the pedicure has been properly maintained. Alternatively, if you really want to dress up, you could also pull out the trusty Birkenstocks, with buckles big enough to slice through someone’s Achilles, so be careful in crowds. (But please, leave the socks at home.)

I know you clean up nicely, Nancy, but I’m not sure any move toward stricter dress codes would get much purchase out here in the West. Dining out lately, I’ve noticed that attire is not so much casual as skimpy. And with a growing number of digital ads promoting things like “underboob deodorant” in my Insta feed, I can only assume people are becoming more comfortable sharing these previously hidden body parts more publicly.

But, really, do restaurants need to have rules that go beyond “no shoes, no shirt, no service,” at least when it comes to apparel? It seems ripe for faux pas. What harm does it cause anyone else if I wear dog-hair-covered yoga pants out to dinner (they were clean when I put them on) or if my husband likes to bedazzle his fanny pack? He’s a creative soul.

We live in a world that seems in constant state of hysteria about so many things, not the least of which is the growing anti-drag rhetoric—when a drag brunch is, frankly, the best place to break out your dressiest high heels and sequins.

So, no, Nancy, I don’t think we can roll back casualization. But it does appear consumers are looking for a bit more warmth in their restaurant interactions, as The New York Times also recently reported. They want less in the way of QR codes and more in the way of the human touch.

This comes as no real surprise, given how prices seem to have climbed to eye-popping levels. (Just last night, we tried a new Lebanese restaurant for takeout and a basic kebab plate—three skewers and enough rice to feed a family of four for three months—was close to $30, which means, sadly that there will be fewer kebabs in my future.)

Any decent restaurant operator will know how important a role good service can play in shaping the value proposition, and so much depends on the little things. A question about the menu answered correctly. A glass of water refilled (with ice, if requested). A verbal mention of any surcharges.

The good news is that restaurants say their difficulties finding talented workers have eased and operators can focus again on training hospitality skills. Chili’s, for example, measures “guests with a problem,” or G-WAPs, at each restaurant, and “staff attentiveness” was high on the problem list last year. So CEO Kevin Hochman decided to back off on the robot servers. He began hiring bussers again, to free servers of the burden of clearing tables. His goal: giving the wait staff more time to interact directly with guests.

It’s a chicken-and-egg thing, really. The hiring crisis forced restaurant employers to take steps to better support their staff. They began paying people more, offering better benefits and scheduling. They found that treating workers well resulted in those servers treating customers well.

And now customers are also behaving better in restaurants. As the late Frank Burns said on the TV show “MASH” (that no one under 40 has seen), “It’s nice to be nice to the nice.” It has been months since I threw a tantrum, for example, and I’m hoping my local Starbucks will soon take my name off the no-latte list. When I walk through a Chili’s, I no longer find the tag “G-WAP” taped to my back.

Fundamentally, rather than asking customers to put their Big Boy Pants on when they go out or trying to create a more-formal atmosphere, I think restaurants can set a tone with gracious hospitality that guests will rise to meet. It doesn’t really matter what you’re wearing, but good manners—and good service—in the form of treating people with respect is always in style.

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