Appetizers
December 26, 2008
Have we lost our standards for how to dress and behave?


It's an old axiom in the restaurant business: the customer is always right.

I'm not so sure.

As The Bee's (new) restaurant critic, I have been dining out more than ever in recent weeks. I've seen servers and chefs and hosts (yes, hosts) make their share of mistakes, mostly minor.

But I've also seen more than a few diners behaving in ways that make me shake my head and wonder: Who raised you?

Put aside poor manners for now - we'll get to that another time. Let's talk about clothes, dress codes, common sense and, well, class. Here, there also seems to be a gender divide. I've seen plenty of well-dressed women at some of the area's best dining establishments with husbands or boyfriends wearing jeans and golf shirts.

I wonder: if you're going on out to dinner at a very nice place, why are you in jeans? A golf shirt? Or even a dress shirt without a sport coat? Why is the woman across from you dressed up and you're not? Do you think she's thrilled with the plaid short-sleeve number you're in?

When I was a kid, my parents used to make me wear a suit and tie when we went to dinner at a nice restaurant. It was a treat, an event, an experience to cherish, and my dad insisted we all dress accordingly. At the time, with the big knot in my bad tie threatening to cut off the circulation around my neck, I felt put upon. I felt like I was the only kid in town in a coat and tie.

Well, it's come full circle. I'm feeling that way again. I look around me and see men in clothes I might wear when I'm sweeping out the garage.

For instance, I had a very nice dinner at Slocum House on Christmas night. The duck was wonderful, the braised chestnut soup a delightful antidote to the plummeting temperature outside.

I wore gray flannel trousers and a wool sport coat, a white shirt and plain necktie. In a different era, that would have been considered casual. I was certainly comfortable and felt my attire was in keeping with the ambience of one of the area's finest restaurants. Slocum House is elegant, refined, classy. The kitchen goes to great lengths to prepare consistently excellent dishes. The servers are friendly and polished (and well dressed).

Yet, the fidgety man at a nearby table was wearing an orange striped dress shirt and jeans. He was the one who complained - and complained - that his bread didn't arrive on time. If memory serves, they load you up with bread at Olive Garden. That's apparently where he thought he was going when he got dressed. In a way, he robbed us of the ambience that Slocum House takes pains to create. When I looked his way, I felt like the all-you-can-eat bread sticks would be arriving any minute.

This may sound terribly old-fashioned, but I cannot imagine any circumstance in which I would dine at Slocum House without a coat and tie. OK, if one of the roosting chickens on a branch overhead throws up on my jacket, maybe. But I would at least feel self-conscious, practically exposed. A dress shirt or golf shirt at Slocum House might as well be a tank top undershirt.

Where I grew up, there were plenty of restaurants that kept a stash of sport jackets and ties for the man who arrived without one or both. My mother worked at a law firm in which the lawyers were required to wear their suit coats when they stepped outside their offices.

Here's a benchmark for men that has served me well. I'm certain I'm not the only one who has used Cary Grant as a guide. If you're unsure about how to behave or dress when going someplace nice, watch a few old Cary Grant movies. He always looked like a million bucks. When in doubt, ask yourself: What would Cary Grant do? What would he wear?

Would Cary Grant wear an orange shirt and jeans to a place brimming with old-world elegance? Would he call the maitre d' over, complain about the bread, then point to the next table and say, "And they haven't got their bread yet either. Get them their bread?" I don't recall that movie.

Good grief. The customer isn't always right. Slocum House deserved better.

Am I the only one who feels this way?

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