3:00am | September 5, 2011

Is a Dress Code a Good Thing?

21 comments

Last week, there was a couple in Bottega for dinner, and every time I walked past them I had to kind of grit my teeth. She looked great: sundress and sandals, casual but put together. The guy, on the other hand, wore a torn red T-shirt, shorts that were rumpled and stained, and a pair of beat-up flip-flops. Every time I spotted those flip-flops, I had to resist the temptation to move the couple to a table in the back.

The more virtuous side of my brain says, “They’re paying for the meal; they have the right to wear what they like.” My brain’s snarky side (which seems to expand on hot days) says, “He is embarrassing every table that chose to dress appropriately for dinner.”
Having lived and worked in the Napa Valley for the last 25 years, I’ve gotten used to lunches being ultra-casual but at dinner I can’t help feeling that our living décor (our customers, mostly men), has gotten a little too relaxed. For years, whenever I’ve been invited to a private event at a friend’s home, the invite has usually stated, “Napa casual,” which means nice jeans and a stylish shirt. To give this kind of notice makes sense to me; I like knowing a dress code in advance as there’s nothing worse than being over- or underdressed for an occasion.

What do you think? Have we overcasualized our dress codes? I think food tastes different when you’re in your shorts in the backyard eating some BBQ versus when you dress up a little for a good restaurant. Your attire is part of the experience. I sense that many restaurant patrons – at least in the Napa Valley – are more comfortable under-dressing than over-dressing for dinner. Is that good or bad?

Contrast the Napa Valley with how people dress in Rome. When I was in Rome last year, I went into a very simple osteria. As soon as I heard “osteria,” I thought I’d feel comfortable in jeans and a nice shirt. I was wrong. The rest of Rome was impeccably attired and even in this small place, men wore ties and Brioni suits. I didn’t enjoy my meal because I felt uncomfortable with how I was dressed. I felt my jeans didn’t show enough respect to the people cooking my food and the other diners in the restaurant with me. Granted, Napa isn’t Rome, but still….

Does it affect your experience when someone in a restaurant is dressed too casually? Do you even notice? Should a restaurant put dress code suggestions on their web site and let each reservation know in advance that people who are seriously underdressed will not be seated? Or is it best to just ignore the beat-up flip-flops? Is the tyranny of a dress code a thing of the past? Please don’t snark me out on this one. I’m casting the net for answers in deciding this difficult question. I’d appreciate knowing how you feel about this.

-Michael

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  • Posted by Nancy Challberg - November 14, 2011

    I agree with your comments. I think if you are going to a 4 or 5 star restaurant, that you should dress the part. Would you go to the Opera wearing jeans and a tank top? I think not.

    I think it’s disrespectful to show up to an upscale restaurant dressed like you are going to the beach for the day. Going out to places like this is an event so dress like it.

  • Posted by Ed Burton - November 16, 2011

    Dress codes are a bit difficult to enforce these days, but as a restaurant owner I believe you have the right to post a sign that says appropriate attire required…and reserve the right to determine what is appropriate. Losing a paying customer or two will not kill you, and the respect you get from the majority of your customers who know how to dress appropriate will pay off in return visits! And boy…now that I know you’re checking us out I am going to really think twice about what I wear! :)

  • Posted by Christine Maxa - November 17, 2011

    Several years ago, I had a meeting with the manager of the Hotel De Russie in Rome. I couldn’t help notice her hand-tailored suit of fine silk. I inwardly gawked at the beauty of the garment because I knew that level of quality never comes close to what’s available in America where franchise mentality prevails over being true to one’s own self and nurturing one’s own font of creativity. But I have clothes in my blood, so to speak – my father’s father was a tailor and I sewed my own clothes for years. So I like to dress when I get the chance and can understand (and agree with) your angst about slovenly styles.

    However, I know a wonderful person who practices the height of perfection and creativity in everything they put their hands to (and dresses well!). This person shared a simple, but powerful thought with me the other day that I will repeat – Love when you cook. My best to ya! – Christine.

  • Posted by Terrence Madden - November 17, 2011

    Flip flops are unacceptable, whether they are brand new or the beat-up pair you witnessed in your restaurant. Also, no baseball caps. Really do we need to know your favorite team? Is that your dress-up cap, or are you wearing your everyday baseball cap? No caps. Didn’t your mother teach you to at least take the thing off indoors? Men and sleeveless t-shirts, I ask you, are you still beating your wife? T-shirts in general? Kinda casual. I wouldn’t even wear one to a backyard barbecue. I’m with you Michael. Reserve the right to say…we’re not seating you.

  • Posted by Emily G - November 24, 2011

    I have to agree with the others, it was completely unacceptable and you, as the owner, certainly have the right to ask them to leave (or, at the very least, put them in the back like you said). Napa Valley is known for being upscale and nice (America’s Tuscany!) and honestly, I can’t believe someone would have the nerve to go into such a fine restaurant dressed that way! I would really consider posting a sign that just says “Napa Casual” – it’s not offensive, but let’s patrons know that “backyard” wear is just not acceptable!

  • Posted by Velma - November 27, 2011

    Michael,
    Honestly, I have been talking about how laxed our “world” has become. I mean it seems to me that people just do not care anymore and we, you the places where we eat and shop need to become more aware of this. How many times do we go out somewhere nice and you see the beat up jeans, flip flops, hair up in a 2 second bun, shorts that are so short that they should be saved for the beach…When I go into a nice place to eat, I want to sit and enjoy the scenery, enjoy the food and drink and not be focused on people that could care less about anyone else. If we do not make a change who will? There is nothing wrong with posting on your website, or on your door before coming in what you expect! It is your place of business and you reserve the right to whether or not you are going to except flip flops or “Napa Casual” if people do not know what that means…then post that too. I love who you are Michael, stay that way there is nothing wrong with having class, and I think the younger generations have not been taught this very well. Too many parents wanting to be friends with their children instead of raising them up with morals and values. I wish you the best of luck on the Iron Chef, in fact I root for you every Sunday, do not know if I will continue to watch if you do not make it as the Next Iron Chef….blessings to you and your family!!

  • Posted by Fred - November 28, 2011

    Chef,
    I completely agree with you. It s totally in bad taste to come to dinner in flip flops and a tee shirt. I recently retired and although I spend most of my days in central Florida in shorts and a tee, I would never think of going to dinner in anything less than business casual. This Christmas Eve as my wife and I dinewout prior to attending church services, it will be jacket and tie. It was the way I was taught by my parents.

  • Posted by Deanne J - December 5, 2011

    Hi Michael,
    Dress or Not To Dress?…..My husband and I enjoy going out to nice restaurants and I always appreciate when fellow diners dress appropriately. It definitely makes for a more enjoyable culinary experience. We enjoy fine cuisine and the food even seems to taste better when those around you have put some effort in what they are wearing. We live in San Diego and it is extremely casual here which I enjoy, but when we go out in the evening for a dining experience I appreciate seeing a certain dress code and feel that it is totally appropriate. When we dined at Bottega last year it was in February and our food was absolutely wonderful! (It was my birthday weekend and you were gracious enough to greet us at our table and wish me a happy birthday.) All the guests at your restaurant that evening were dressed very nicely, but of course this was a cooler month. When it is warm out it is amazing what happens to the dress code! And regarding dress code and someone wearing an old beat up T-shirt to your restaurant; I also find it very distracting and evening amusing when I see individuals with Tattooed covered arms and bodies. I just can’t help wondering what they were thinking since a tattoo is pretty permanent. I know it is the thing now with the younger generation. I have a son that is 4 and I just hope when he gets older there will be another fade. My husband and I enjoy watching some of the cooking shows and I even notice that some of the new and up and coming chefs love their tattoos too. I was glad to read your posting and hear your opinion on dress code.

    We have enjoyed watching you recently on Iron Chef….you are the real deal! We appreciate your passion for your craft and the respect you show your fellow chefs. Not to mention names, but I find it quite sad how many Chefs lend their names to many Vegas restaurants and then only visit a few times a year. It was great to see you in Bottega actually cooking! Very refreshing….that is what a Top Chef Master is all about. We will be rooting for you to win!

    On another random topic if you happen to read this posting….we just purchased a sous vide machine and I am trying to find a good recipe to cook a 2 inch tri-tip roast. Do you have a recommendation on how long to cook it and at what temperature?

    Many blessings to you and your family,

    Deanne and James from San Diego

  • Posted by Peggy - December 29, 2011

    I agree that the man’s dress was unacceptable. There is acceptable ‘business casual’ for men too – nice pants / denims and a golf style of shirt, sandals or a pair of casual shoes (not runners). I live in Canada (and I have dined at your fabulous restaurant) and several of our 4 and 5 star restaurants do have dress codes and they post it on their websites. Dressing appropriately shows respect to your partner, yourself, the restaurant staff / owners and the other patrons / guests in the restaurant. Please put a dress code on your website and door!

  • Posted by Christopher Pappe - December 31, 2011

    Michael,

    I rue the times when my wife Marian and I show up in the evening well dressed at a beautiful restaurant in the valley like Bouchon or Bottega and we are confronted by guys in rumpled t shirts and shorts. Especially when I am entertaining clients. It happens frequently and I agree that particularly men have become too relaxed. On the other hand, I wonder if in the restaurant business, we have trained our guests to dress this way. When I started my career in restaurants at Donatello in San Francisco, we used to keep blue blazers in the closet for gentleman that chose to ignore our dress code. Back in the early 80′s it was common for a restaurant to have a dress code. Perhaps we should encourage our guests to dress appropriately, such as — “no flip flops” or like golf courses, collars required. Just saying. Keep up the great work. BTW, I am addicted to your Burrata! Ciao!

  • Posted by Miriam F - January 6, 2012

    I totally agree with you. So yes, dress code should be enforced. Even when you go to a beach resort (anywhere in the world) the restaurants enforce a dress code for dinner or what type of attire is not allowed on their restaurants at any time. For me going out for a nice dinner involves not only going for a nice meal but also the ambiance, customer service and attention to detail from the establishment and staff.
    On a side note, I’m very excited to go this weekend to your restaurant for the first time! I hope we would find you there. All the best and Happy 2012!!

  • Posted by Kat Carroll - January 9, 2012

    Whatever you do you must clearly communicate your “dress expectations” clearly and with every channel available ( i.e. At the reservation desk.). For example, if your reservation desk told me that the dinner dress code is “Napa style” I would have no idea what that means. Is it like “California casual” or is it some other regional, homogeneous slang term that really cannot be interpreted into a practical guideline.
    Secondly, I agree that I feel being dressed up adds to my culinary experience however my husband could care less (althiugh he’d never wear a torn T-shirt to eat out.) He dresses far more casually than most people and I get very frustrated on the rare occasions where we have been treated poorly because of his clean yet casual style. That is a form of prejudice and elitism that should not be tolerated by a restaurant owner. Believe me, he has sat in wonderful eateries in Rome, drssed very casually, and never felt uncomfortable – he’s comfortable and confident with who he is as should you be. If you are letting what other people wear disturb your experience then maybe you need to step back and take a look at your own level of judgments. Take your frustration out on customers who are disruptive and rude, not on people who behave
    appropriately and willingly tip well if treated respectfully regardless of their clothing. Frankly, if you have not, in detail,
    communicated a guideline for dress then let it go and move on.

  • Posted by Steven - January 14, 2012

    I wholeheartedly agree that diners who choose to patronize upscale restaurants should respect the decorum of the establishment and dress appropriately. I live in Sonoma and we enjoy the choice of casual dining, but still feel that a night out warrants dressing well. I’m not talking about a suit and tie, but nice jeans and a nice shirt as you suggested, makes both us and I’m sure those sitting around us, more comfortable.

    We ALWAYS notice when others are poorly dressed and, it too, distracts us from enjoying our dining experience. We end up commenting the rest of the night about their attire, instead of being able to focus on our dinner. I think addressing the expected dress code on a restaurant’s website is a great idea, or when a patron calls to make a reservation.

    Thanks for raising the question and generating some discussion.

    Steven M.

  • Posted by Jon - January 20, 2012

    We have become too casual at dinner. I agree that when we dress up our attire that the food seems to taste better. I have been on both sides of the over-dressed/under-dressed situation. Something changed when holes in jeans became fashionable.

    If you (or any other restaurant) are going to implement a dress code it has to be clear and concise. All I can say is remember what inspired Phil Collin’s classic album from the 80′s: “No Jacket Required”

  • Posted by susan - February 10, 2012

    Been one of your biggest fans for YEARS. Have to agree dress code is still important, was mortified not to be welcomed by Harry’s Bar in Venice because my husband was wearing shorts at lunchtime. Ugh, that bites. However, we don’t relish the thought of getting “dressed” for dinner beyond a good shirt, except for maybe a 31st wedding anniversary :). Otherwise, our lifestyle does not involve being “dressed”. For dinner. Why we do lunch and early dinners! We also live at a beach and the difference between the beach and neighboring city is incredible. When I lived there I used to have to “get dressed” to go the grocery store. Having lived in aristocratic Verona, Italy, I, too understand how the Italians dress. Whew. Have to say in all, the “fine” restaurants are reserved for a special occasion and promise I would be “dressed.” Also look at the dollar signs ($$$, $$$$, ETC) to get an idea of a restaurant’s requirements.

  • Posted by Cathy - February 26, 2012

    I agree, everytime I go to an upscale restaurant and see someone dressed that way I wonder, “what were they thinking!” Some people just don’t get it. Save the flip flops for the beach vacation or backyard bar-b-que. And torn or stained T-shirts need to be kept in the garage for yard work or working on the car. It is disrespectful to the owners of the restaurant to not have the decency to take the time to pull yourself together. Pride is important, after all the chef’s put all they have into making sure your dining experience is as enjoyable as possible, reward them by showing them you care enough to dress the part. Look forward to eating at your restaurant when I’m in California. By the way, your wines were fantastic – enjoyed them last night at the SoBe event, thanks for being so nice and informative. My friend and I had a great time.

  • Posted by Mariella - April 24, 2012

    LOL… I agree 100%….I can’t stand the way people dress now. I’m from Italy…and I still dress up when I go anywere.

  • Posted by Jay Canaway - May 19, 2012

    While personally I would be unlikely to dress like that to dinner, it is important to consider that for the far majority a trip to Napa Valley is a getaway/vacation. Many younger people especially while traveling, do not want to get dressed up for dinner. Bottega is a beautiful space, with the chill outdoor area and great decor inside. It would be a mistake to institute a specific dress code other than “Napa Casual” which allows individuals to feel the amazing vibe of the Napa experience. I can tell you with much experience from traveling for work, younger people <40 don't want to be told what they should wear to dinner. In Vegas if a high end steakhouse or Italian restaurant requires slacks/business casual instead of jeans my colleagues who are all wealthy guys won't go. They figure they are wearing $250 jeans whats the difference. So I would just be careful as the newer, hipper, spot in Yountville not to turn off these patrons who might spend a great deal of money while wearing jeans with flip flops. Would you turn away Mark Zuckerburg cause he is wearing a black hoodie and flip flops?

  • Posted by Diane - June 13, 2012

    My thoughts: state your dress code upfront. The ultra casual are always welcome at lunch. Only option is a casual diner’s room that is out of the way or off to the side.
    Yes, people vacation and bike in Napa, but we all have clean clothes and shirts and shoes that are casual.

  • Posted by Beth - October 5, 2012

    Its sad that the question has to be asked: is a dress code a good thing? Too bad that people don’t care about their style or appearance. I am consistently shaken by the hideous things people wear in public (especially airports- what is the deal? Are normal pants that uncomfortable?) that should never ever leave the house. So, in answer to the question, please do post a dress code to protect the rest of us. I wish that there were dress codes more often. PS. I am traveling to Napa from Nashville and was trying to decide what to wear to dinner and would have really appreciated something on the website. And many of us don’t know what “napa casual” means, so specificity is important. Thanks for asking the question.

  • Posted by D Santaniello - August 4, 2013

    Hello Michael, I just happened to find this blog question. I’m not sure what “napa casual” is but in Europe (Paris) we dressed for dinner every evening, even day time was not a place for shorts and flip flops or sneakers. American’s tend to stand out in their always casual attire. When asking my friend what to wear, she said Sunday Best ! lol To be honest, I like it that way. We’ve [Americans] gotten too casual. I am 50ish and when I worked full-time as an office manager, we always dressed for success. Now, it is really taken dress down Friday’s for a ride every day. Men especially – dress up for dinner, it’s a very nice gesture to your date, and to the people preparing your food for you.