Gentlemen - dare I say your special lady friend looks just smashing tonight? She went out and got her hair and nails done, tweezed various things, squeezed herself into magical, shape-carving, circulation-repressing undergarments (that she'll discreetly remove before you ever see them), and painted on her date face. She's pretty hot.
But you, sir. Would it truly unman you to put on a tie? Maybe one without a passive-aggressive Looney Toons character or sports logo stitched uponst it? Okay, okay - that was overreaching. Might you consider dress shoes? Perhaps something with a non-rubber sole or without a visible logo? Maybe something that covers the toe area? No?
Well, it was worth a shot. And congratulations, sir. Your female companion must be exceptionally enamored of your other attributes because as I mentioned before, she looks like a million bucks and you...you were aware that this dinner date was taking place in public, right? At a restaurant?
This is why dress codes rock. They set up expectations and a calming assurance that you will be neither over nor under dressed. They're egalitarian, not elitist - from "no shirt, no shoes, no service" to "gentlemen are required to wear a jacket in the dining room." If exercised in good faith - which it often is - the policy will relegate a Fortune 500 CEO in deck shoes and an open collar to the restaurant lounge, while the broke student in a borrowed tie and jacket, who saved up for months to take his date out for the meal of a lifetime, gets a "Right this way, sir." He played by the rules.
While some establishments make special exceptions for celebrities and high-rolling regulars, it's certainly not always the case. Culturemap Houston reported just this week that Food Network star Paula Deen was denied entry to a Vic and Anthony's Steakhouse because her husband's pants were of inadequate length, and the couple's assistant hadn't packed any that fit the restaurant's stated, "We do not allow hats, shorts or flip-flops" policy. The couple decamped to a nearby Morton's steakhouse.
Just last week, I sat in the bar of a high-end, award-winning restaurant I'd always been a tad too intimidated to visit, fearing I just wasn't fancy enough. As it turns out, I shouldn't have worried. I'd fussed and fretted and put on what I hoped was a sufficiently swanky ensemble, and watched as a stream of clearly well-to-do gentlemen strolled in with gorgeously decked-out women on their arms and jeans and sneakers on their lower halves. They were inevitably escorted to the equally expensive, but rather less prestigious lounge area. Their dates looked...disappointed.
The restaurant's dress code is clearly stated on their website, and I couldn't help but ask a friend of mine who worked there what was behind the under dressed men's thinking. His take - with a check average of $230 per person, plenty of diners feel entitled to wear what they want; but it's still his job to enforce the rules.
Napa Valley chef and restaurateur Michael Chiarello recently evoked the same sort of scenario in a column for Inside Scoop SF, writing of a customer who'd come into his restaurant Bottega in flip-flops and a torn T-shirt, "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.'"
"Embarrassing" might be a strong word, but I get what he's saying. Perhaps in an ideal world, we should be wholly focused on our own experience and that of our companions, and how other people choose to comport themselves should be the least of our worries.
But restaurants, at their very best, are a grand and invisible theater, and everyone in them plays a part. It's why we leave our homes to eat in the company of others, rather than just gnawing at hunks of cold pizza on the couch while watching Law & Order reruns (though that is a frequent and awesome option). The food (and not having to cook or clean up after it) is a significant part, of course, but so are a thousand other factors - the service, the music, the decor, and yes, the behavior and sartorial stylings of other diners. When all these things are in harmony, magic can happen. When it doesn't, the whole night can hit a sour note.
Give it a shot - flip-flop your policy and knot up a tie before you tie one on next time. If you find you don't like it, there's plenty of room in the lounge.