Is It A 'Dress Code' Or Is It Discrimination? Restaurants Explain Their Stance.

Chefs, business owners and industry veterans on all sides of this debate defend their preferred policies.
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Should wearing a pair of shorts or a baseball cap keep you from enjoying an expensive night on the town? At many upscale restaurants, potential customers are turned away if they’re wearing clothes that don’t match the classy vibe inside. Some diners have complained about discrimination, especially when dress codes seem to be enforced differently for certain people due to their race, class or gender.

But others agree with restaurant owners who believe that maintaining a minimum standard in their luxury spaces allows patrons to fit in appropriately with the decor, creating an atmosphere that makes everyone to feel special. After all, they say, they’ve invested quite a lot in their business, and it’s not too much to ask customers to step up a little bit for a five-star experience.

We spoke with experts in etiquette and dining out to explain why things are the way they are.

Here’s why dress codes exist in the first place.

Richard Ford literally wrote the book on dress codes. Ford, a Stanford Law School professor and the author of “Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History,” said there’s a duality inherent in the creation and enforcement of rules about the kind of clothing people are allowed to wear.

“On the reasonable side, dress communicates respect and professionalism, so schools, workplaces and venues have a good reason to insist on clothing that fits with the mission and purpose of the institution,” he said. “On the troubling side, sometimes dress codes are used to screen out stigmatised racial groups.”

He pointed to dress codes banning gold chains, dental grills or sagging pants. To add another layer to the issue, even establishments that cater to a largely Black customer base sometimes want to signal what Ford called “a certain type of bourgeois respectability.”

“It’s true that some might find this objectionable, but it’s not exactly racist,” he said.

Reuben Buford May, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, studies discrimination in public accommodations like nightclubs, restaurants and bars. He agreed that while dress codes can be viewed as a way to attract a certain type of customer, they can also be understood as a means to keep others away.

“I’ve had an owner tell me, ‘Riffraff is bad for business,’ so he has a code in place to keep certain ‘types’ out of his establishment,” May said.

In the past, you could likely recognise a high-status person by the way they were dressed. If it was after 6 p.m. and they were in a tux, for example, you knew they probably weren’t a farmer. (Thanks, “30 Rock.”) But May pointed out that dress codes can be more difficult to justify now that popular styles are often about comfort.

“You might have a hoodie-wearing guest who could buy the entire restaurant, but can’t be seated because of a dress code that requires a jacket,” he explained.

These restaurant owners are happy to have dress codes.

Juliet, a Houston-based steakhouse and fine-dining restaurant owned by Jamie Allen, says it “enforces a strict upscale dress code.” Allen created the code himself, saying it signifies that Juliet is not an everyday spot to grab a quick meal, but a celebratory destination.

“There’s a time and a place for everything,” Allen said. “I don’t want everyone dressed like they’re at a sports bar.”

Wearing shorts and sandals? That could mean no service in some establishments.
Sian Kennedy via Getty Images
Wearing shorts and sandals? That could mean no service in some establishments.

Allen, who is Black, said he has personally experienced racism when trying to enter certain venues, but noted that Juliet’s dress code is enforced equally.

“I’ve been to places myself that have a dress code banning things Black people wear, like Jordans or big chains,” he said. “Our dress code isn’t intended to block any demographic, because Juliet is a space where all people and all races can feel comfortable.”

The Juliet dress code states: “We do not allow gym attire, beachwear, jean shorts, provocative clothing, sleeveless shirts or tank tops. Athletic apparel, jerseys, beanies, ball caps, bandanas and plain white t shirts are prohibited. Clothing emitting offensive odours is not permitted to be worn anywhere on the property.”

Another proponent of dress codes is Adrianne Calvo, the owner of Miami-based Chef Adrianne’s Vineyard Restaurant & Bar.

“I love that there are still some places in New York and Los Angeles that you can’t get into without a dinner jacket,” she said. Her restaurant’s dress code is business casual, banning athletic wear like basketball shorts, yoga shorts and sports bras.

“I feel that if you see white linen and fresh roses on the table, that’s your sign to not come in pajamas or sweaty from the court,” Calvo said. “We also feel that if we went through all this thoughtful effort to provide an atmosphere for you to feel special and really embrace our theme, dressing inappropriately ruins the ambience and the feel.”

This etiquette expert is also a dress code fan.

Thomas P. Farley, an etiquette expert who goes by the name Mister Manners, agreed that there’s an upside to classy attire.

“In the same way I wouldn’t show up for a friend’s dinner party looking as though I had just left a water park, I wouldn’t consider bringing down the mood in a restaurant by not being at my best — whether in my interactions with the staff, my conversations at the table or, yes, in my wardrobe choices,” he said.

Farley said it’s time for all of us to, well, take a look in the mirror.

“If encountering the occasional restaurant dress code policy is what it takes for Americans to begin reassessing the image they’re projecting when they are out in public, I’m all in favour,” he said.

Like Allen, Farley is aware that “no exceptions” should mean just that. He applauded codes that are “thoroughly communicated, graciously conveyed, consistently applied and non-gender-specific,” adding that there should be no loopholes for labels.

“So, ‘no tank tops’ must mean ‘no tank tops,’ whether the tank is from Target or from Tory Burch,” he said.

This chef has a policy, but it’s pretty relaxed.

At the Michelin-starred restaurant Cyrus in Geyserville, California, there’s a very short dress code: no shorts, flip-flops or white sleeveless undershirts.

“It’s the minimum amount of policy we could enforce to walk the tight line of people being very relaxed and comfortable in Sonoma County in general, but still trying to maintain a policy that helps keep the culture of a special evening for the other guests,” explained James Beard Award-winning chef Douglas Keane. “We do communicate our policy ahead of time, so we’re able to refer back to that if there’s strong pushback from a customer.”

Come as you are, these owners say.

Vinyl Steakhouse, in New York City’s Flatiron District, takes a different approach. Co-owner and sommelier Sofia Flannery said, “We welcome any and all ways of dressing for our dining room.” One big reason? She’s never been a fan of any dress code policy herself.

“I’ve always thought it stifles individuality, and people are so interesting,” she said. “I hate not being able to see who a person is because they’re wearing something to abide by a rule.”

Another reason for ditching the jacket-and-tie requirement is the restaurant’s Manhattan location.

“New York has always been the city where you can fully be yourself, and we try to stand by that with our dress code,” Flannery said. “Tailored suits? Adidas tracksuit? Ball cap from a Yankees game you just came from? We love it all.”

Flannery has a kindred spirit in Suzanne Podhaizer, a freelance food writer and recipe developer who owned the now-shuttered Salt Café in Montpelier, Vermont. The restaurant had no dress code for the staff or customers.

“It was important to me that the cheesemakers, farmers and bakers from whom we sourced felt just as comfortable dining at the restaurant as did the lobbyists, doctors and tourists,” she said. “The hope was that those who loved dressing up would still do so, but that those who weren’t interested, were coming straight from work or who didn’t own dress clothes wouldn’t feel out of place. I believe it allowed more people to feel welcomed.”

That view was echoed by John Sugimura, a corporate executive chef at food service management company Taher who is on a team working to reopen the shuttered Forepaugh’s, a historically white-tablecloth destination in St. Paul, Minnesota. While the restaurant might have had a dress code in the past, its new incarnation will not.

“I think a formal policy could be a buzzkill and could potentially have a chilling effect on revenue,” Sugimura said. “In this postpandemic world, our industry continues to struggle to survive, and I believe we all need to open our eyes to know our audience authentically. A dress code represents everything that’s wrong in hospitality.”

If you have a code, consistency matters, staff members say.

While restaurant owners may be the ones drafting a dress code, it’s typically up to the staff to enforce it in a consistent way. Rick Camac, the executive director of industry relations at the Institute of Culinary Education, once worked as the chief operating officer for an exclusive country club.

“Their policy was nearly impossible to understand and even harder to enforce,” Camac said, adding that there were many times when it was ignored for certain members. “It was a club of millionaires, billionaires and famous people, so if they were either extremely difficult with the managers or very friendly with them, staff would often look the other way.”

After that experience, Camac said: “I think any policy has to be appropriate, reasonable to comply with and always adhered to. But as a customer, as long as a policy makes sense and is consistent, I have no issue with it.”

Keyatta Mincey Parker, the chief curating officer at Pictures and Cocktails LLC, previously worked for six years at a boutique hotel in Atlanta.

“We had a rooftop bar with a dress code that prohibited T-shirts, athletic wear, clothing with holes, flip-flops and sneakers,” she said.

“The order came from the owners who kept saying they didn’t want ‘that crowd’ at the bar,” she explained. “The challenge was that hotel guests, who were paying top dollar, found it to be very problematic. Every night I had to explain to people they had to get dressed up to relax on the rooftop bar. At least once a week there was an issue.”

As much as the owners denied it, racism was present in decisions about who was allowed and who was turned away, said Parker, who is Black.

“If a person is fully dressed and presenting in a way that fits the vibe, let them have fun,” she said. “I think many places selectively discriminate under the veil of the dress code, and they don’t even hide it. If you’re going to have rules, then it has to be the same across the board, or it’s embarrassing and wrong.”

‘In 2024, we should worry about bigger things than dress policies.’

Even at the world’s most luxurious resorts, dress code issues can loom large. That’s been the experience of luxury hospitality veteran Melissa Sambugaro, the sales and marketing director at Iniala Group, which owns the luxury resort Iniala Beach House in Phuket, Thailand.

She’s worked at places where guests are turned away for wearing open-toed shoes or men are prohibited from wearing shorts. From her perspective, those dress codes are outdated and due for reconsideration.

“I think that in 2024, we should worry about bigger things than dress policies,” Sambugaro said. “Based on my personal experience, you really can’t judge the status of a person by how they dress. I’ve seen millionaires show up wearing sneakers and then leave the best tip of the night. I’ve also seen people wearing fancy clothes who walked out once they saw the prices on the menu.”

Keane, who has a relaxed dress code at Cyrus, agreed with this. But he can also see things from a restaurant owner’s perspective.

“I like to be comfortable, and I find most dress code policies, like mandatory jackets and ties, silly and outdated,” he said. “I also understand that it’s hard when you’re dealing with a wide range of the public and there’s no common rule, so I understand why places enact them.

“The overall philosophy as a business owner should be that you want all guests to be comfortable. You need to come up [with] what you think is best and right for your clientele and your atmosphere, so that ultimately the dress code should reflect your personality or philosophy of hospitality.”