“Dress up. Montrealers take pride in their appearance, always preferring to be over – than underdressed. If there was ever any time to pack those fancy designer heels or stylish slacks, this would be it. No running shoes please. Men should wear a jacket for restaurants in the $$$$ range.” ~ Fodor’s Travel; Montreal and Quebec City.
“I think fine dining is dying out everywhere… but I think there will be – and there has to always be – room for at least a small number of really fine, old-school fine-dining restaurants.” ~ Anthony Bourdain
There was a time, back in what many in my advanced generation call the “olden days,” when dining out was an event that included a whole series of formal elements, one of which was dressing up. The whole rite could seem just short of a coronation; reservations made a month or more in advance, the laying out of clothes, dressing up, and arriving at the restaurant with an anticipation that was fitting for the special experience.
Entering the restaurant we would approach the maitre d’s station as if it were a judge’s bench and announce ourselves. With a stern, officious manner he (it was always a HE) would run a rigid finger down the list of reservations glancing up now and again in appraisal of our appearance. Once satisfied that we were worthy of gaining entrée he would snap into an about face and, walking ramrod straight as if it were a changing of the guard, lead us to our table. Once at the table he would pull out chairs for the ladies and present each of us with a menu, treating the bill of fare with all the reverence befitting an official document.
The server, often outfitted with a starched white apron and a white linen napkin draped over an arm would take the cocktail order and explain the specials in a manner only slightly less affected than the maitre d’s. No there would be no perky, server bouncing to the table and chirping, “Hi I’m Brittany and I’ll be taking care of you tonight.”
If those olden days went back to when I was a kid, well that was a whole different proceeding. Little kids were something of a rare and unwelcome occurrence in a fancy restaurant. While I was too young to take note I’m sure that the maitre d’s demeanor took on a few more grades of flintiness as he gazed down on me with grim disdain from on high.
I wouldn’t be surprised to find that restaurants would set aside a dining room purgatory for parties that included small children. I imagine that as we were led to the nether reaches of the restaurant we received more than a few cold stares from Scotch sipping, cigar sucking gentlemen and expressions of loathing from blue haired matrons. It was a sort of dining perp walk ending at a table near the kitchen, a place once considered a place of dishonor. Now the kitchen is something of a stage, wide open, with seats nearby coveted for the floor show; because what’s more appetizing than watching a sous chef’s hand get blistered by a sudden flare up.
If there’s one thing that I can be proud of it’s that during those childhood days I can’t recall a single incident in which I mortified my parents. I suppose that part of that was due to the pep talk that I received before we entered the restaurant; speak in a muted restaurant voice (a level that no longer exists), don’t whine and fidget, be sure to clean my plate, mind my table manners, don’t pick up food with my fingers and especially don’t spit food out, no matter how nasty it might taste.
However, as repellent as a little kid might be, sort of like a cockroach peeking from under a lettuce leaf, there was a much more egregious offense, one that didn’t get you beyond the maitre d’s checkpoint. That malfeasance was attire that didn’t pass muster. If a tie was required you might be lucky enough to be offered a clip-on loaner. If a jacket was required, that windbreaker wouldn’t cut it. Jacket meant a suit coat at best or a blazer at worst.
Even if a fine restaurant didn’t have a written dress code, it was generally understood that a dress shirt, slacks and shined shoes were the uniform of the day for men. A nice restaurant was considered on par with the opera or the symphony. It was recognized that jeans, polo shirts, tank tops and sneakers were not appropriate.
Now I don’t consider myself a hard boiled nitpicker when it comes to fine dining but I do still hold on to a few of the old basics. Be polite, observe basic table manners, by all means bring children if their behavior is suitable to the restaurant, try not to be loud and dress appropriately. If this is the part where you want to flash the “discriminating against the poor” card – don’t. If you can afford cocktails, a 30.00 dollar entree, a good bottle of wine, dessert and a couple snifters of cognac you can afford a pair of slacks and a collared shirt.
When Cora and I go on vacation we often set aside at least one evening for a special dinner, the splurge before the end of a trip. We had one special meal planned for our visit to Montreal and we chose a restaurant described as “sophisticated” with a “classic white linen tablecloth” atmosphere that was located in the chic Outremont district. And so, during the planning stage and months in advance of our trip I read the admonishment in the Fodor’s guide about dining in Montreal and found myself mulling over the best way to bring my suit; wear it on the plane or pack it.
There was a time when I considered a suit to be a standard part of the travel wardrobe and I usually chose to wear it on the plane. Those were the days before airliners became winged cattle cars and air travel didn’t feel like bondage. You had some arm and leg space, the seatback in front of you wasn’t practically up your nose and you didn’t spend five hours getting regularly bumped in your back by the passenger behind you. All that and you didn’t have to disrobe for the TSA agent. A suit was bearable in those days before a cross country flight became as appealing as swabbing out a trash truck.
This year, before going straight to the drastic measure of bringing a suit I decided to fact check Fodor’s by consulting a source considered by many to be THE one and only authentic oracle of truth and wisdom – the internet. I was happy to find that my suit wouldn’t be making the trip and I would be good wearing business casual; slacks, collared shirt and nice shoes.
The Outremont is a proudly French district in Montreal characterized by tree lined streets and charming homes. As always after parking the car on a Montreal residential street I walked up to the street sign that detailed in French the local parking regulations. I gazed up at the sign, scratched my head a bit and puzzled over it trying to decipher the French using my understanding of Spanish and Italian. As best as I could make out the car would be there when we got back and without a notice of violation de stationnement adorning the windshield.
As the hostess led us to our table I glanced around, gratified to see a dinner crowd dressed in business casual, with the exception of a sprinkling of ties on the one hand and a few jeans and sneakers on the other,
Our dinner was all that I could’ve asked for. That is, except for a wine pairing, but my alcohol days are bygone days (we can leave that mess for another post). It was in Montreal that I developed a love affair with goat cheese and for a starter I ordered an apple and walnut salad with panko crusted goat cheese. Cora ordered a smoked salmon salad; fresh greens topped with avocado all held together in a generous ring of smoked salmon. My main course, a hanger steak was perfectly cooked and smothered in a mushroom sauce, mushrooms and sauteed onions.
As I started my desert of banana and date sticky toffee pudding, topped with vanilla ice cream the hostess led a young couple to a nearby table. Cora and I glanced at the couple, looked at each other, glanced back at the couple and then exchanged equal looks of amazement. The two young Americans were dressed flawlessly – for a day at the beach. Both were resplendent in shorts, his complimented by a logoed t-shirt, her’s by a gray tank top. Maybe this is where I come off as the stodgy old bastard because I found their costumes to be annoying.
Maybe I’m overreacting. It didn’t make me feel faint, ruin my appetite, compel me to send back the dessert or demand a discount on the grounds of being scandalized. My reaction was very unlike that of a woman who reviewed the same restaurant over a similarly dressed diner; “a young couple was seated beside us and the young man in question, besides the bermuda’s and flip-flops, was wearing a tank-shirt. I can be lenient on all but the latter – in fact it took my appetite away. Not only did we not order coffee or dessert – but I felt my dinner experience was ruined … It will be a long time, if ever, that I go back.” In one respect I can understand her point because I wouldn’t want to see some guy’s hairy pits staring at me from under a tank top (Let the record show that the young woman we saw didn’t have hairy pits). In the end it’s the choice of the restaurant management on what’s allowed and what isn’t. After all their money was as green (or whatever color Canadian money is) as ours.
And still it was bothersome; the same annoyance I would have seeing that kind of attire at any formal venue. I wondered if at any time the couple glanced around the dining room and realized that they might be decidedly underdressed. Had it been me walking to the table wearing shorts and a t-shirt I would’ve looked around and whispered to Cora, “Oops. I think we fucked up.” Let’s face it if you’ve underdressed that much for a restaurant how much worse can an “F” bomb make things? “In for a dime, in for a dollar” I always say.
This became a point of discussion during the ride back to our apartment. It seemed that the young couple was at best uninformed or maybe lazy for not doing some research on the restaurant and at worst, rude for not caring about dressing appropriately. Maybe they were just out of touch. Maybe it’s Cora and I who are out of touch for caring about the whole thing. Maybe all four of us, Cora and I and the young couple are all out of touch and for different reasons.
After returning home from our trip, I was curious about what my daughter, and her friend Cody thought about restaurant attire. Both are closer in age to that couple and Jessica spent her college years working as a hostess and server in restaurants ranging from ice cream parlor to upscale steakhouse. In principle we all agreed that a nice restaurant calls for appropriate attire.
Cody, echoing my opinion, commented that going out to dinner used to be an event; if not a celebration of a special occasion then certainly something that was planned in advance with a sense of anticipation.
While dinner out can be an event or a celebration it has also become spontaneous; “I don’t feel like cooking tonight, let’s go out,” or “I’m working late and traffic is horrible. I’m just going to grab something here.” So dinner out becomes less an event and more just “grabbing” something for the sake of convenience. The event has become the mundane.
Addressing the young couple in the Montreal restaurant, Jessica offered that they may have just been casual walk-ins who looked at the menu and decided on the spur of the moment to select that particular restaurant. I countered that Cora and I have often been in the same situation but declined to go in after looking at the ambience and the diners and deciding that we were not properly dressed.
Years ago I had a similar conversation with a friend who was well acquainted with fine dining, his wife being an accomplished pastry chef at some renowned San Francisco restaurants. His take was that for many years what we call fine dining was something of a rarified thing, not widely accessible. With more disposable income, easier access to credit, better access to information on the internet (Yelp, OpenTable and the many travel sites) there’s been greater awareness of restaurants that once were unknown or considered beyond means. The missing ingredient was a grasp of accepted convention. And maybe that comes from experience. Maybe there’s no cognizance that going from Burger King to Black Bear Diner to TGI Fridays to Peter Luger’s comes with a concurrent change in wardrobe.
Maybe that couple in the Montreal restaurant left recognizing that maybe they could have dressed differently Or maybe they just didn’t care; “Here we are. Takes us or leave us.”
Maybe this is just a generational thing. Maybe it’s some sort of evolution (and in this case I use the word very loosely). What seems appropriate to us in given situations might simply be antiquated. Times and standards of acceptability change. Look at just about any photograph taken in the 1950’s of a crowd at a baseball game and you’ll see men wearing coats and ties. Unless it’s for some official protocol nobody wears a suit to a sporting event. Given the choice of sitting at Wrigley Field on a 90 degree afternoon wearing a suit or not going to the game I think I’d pass on the game.
When I was younger it was generally understood that certain places or events required certain standards of dress. Church attire was strictly formal. Present day church attire, at least in the local Catholic church, seems to be anything goes as long as long as there’s no imminent hazard of a nip slip. I’ve seen polo shirts at funerals and formal weddings and jeans at the symphony.
When did the protocol of wearing nice clothes to a nice restaurant change? I certainly couldn’t say. Maybe it was about the time that an acceptable restaurant voice went from conversational to shouting and braying like an enraged mule and the general noise level went from tranquil to the decibel level of aircraft carrier flight operations. Maybe it was when restaurants who often forbade cell phones surrendered to the now common and always annoying loud cell phone conversations at the next table over.
This isn’t to say that dining out hasn’t seen some positive change. No longer do you drop 50.00 on a steak only to have it ruined by some old boy smoking a rope at the next table over. Generally speaking families with children are no longer frowned on as trespassers (Parents, just coach them up before you go). And it isn’t a bad thing that fine dining has become more egalitarian from the standpoint of both staff and customers.
Putting this into perspective it’s true that this is not very high up on the list of things to lose sleep over. Agreeing on restaurant decorum won’t put out the Amazon fires or stop gun violence. It is though a commentary on where propriety in general has been heading. It demonstrates a societal laziness and seems to be a part of an I’ll do or say what I want and screw the rest of you mindset. It’s emblematic of a growing discourtesy that countenances wearing a t-shirt to a funeral. Symptomatic of the sort of decline in gentility, that we see in the comments section of Yahoo news. Symbolic of a disdain for others that strolling through a family venue while wearing a t-shirt showing a stick figure humping a U is okay because the offending shirt is just a means of self-expression.