When I was growing up, my parents made my brother and me dress up for everything: piano recitals, , theater outings and dinners out at restaurants. We didn't always wear ties — especially when other men around us were often in their shirtsleeves — but I've never been what you'd call a casual dresser. I no longer dress to please my parents, but I understand now, more than ever, the importance of dressing up.
I recently called John Winterman, who used to work for Daniel Boulud as maître d' at , and for Charlie Trotter before that, and asked if he thinks dressing up for dinner still matters.
"Absolutely," said Winterman, who's now managing partner at in New York City. "I break it down into self-respect and respect for others."
Would someone's appearance affect the table they were assigned at, say, Daniel?
"On the record, yes," he said. "If someone comes in making an effort and looking fabulous and glamorous and they know they're in for a premium experience at a premium price, you give them a fabulous table in the middle of the room. And people react to that, when they see a crowd that's well-dressed and beautiful and sparkling."
Once Winterman had to turn away a regular who arrived to the restaurant in cut-off jeans and flip-flops. "We said, 'Doctor, we're very sorry but we can't serve you,' because once you make an exception for one person, it's a slippery slope."
Winterman, who said he's "never been in a city where what table you're sitting at is such a competitive sport," was quick to point out that dressing up doesn't necessarily require spending a lot of money. What matters, he said, is "does it fit well, does it create that silhouette, and is it made from quality materials?"
A few blocks south and east from Daniel, on East 52nd Street near Sutton Place is one of the few remaining restaurants that still requires gentlemen wear a tie under their jacket — kind of.
"I'm so glad you called because this is a very important and very interesting subject in fine dining restaurants in New York," said 79-year-old Swiss native Georges Briguet when I reached him at his home above the restaurant. He's owned the restaurant with his French wife, Marie-Thérèse, for more than 50 years, and still spends most of his nights there (in a tuxedo, no less).
And while the restaurant was mentioned in a 1998 New York Times as being among a handful of places that held onto their tie requirement for male diners, today Briguet has modified the rule. (The other restaurants on the list have either closed or switched to a dress code that requires a jacket but no tie.)
"In the old days, until business went down with the recession in 2009 and 2010, the dress code for men was simply jacket and tie," Briguet said. "Nobody would be served dinner by the chef at Le Périgord if he was not dressed properly. Unfortunately, today we have to pay the rent; we have to stay in business, and we cannot turn away the people who do not have a jacket and tie."
So the solution he's come up with is to separate the restaurant into two sections: around 80% of the clientele, "who are dressed for fine dining" (i.e. men wearing jackets and ties), sit on the formal side of the restaurant. Briguet seats the other 20% of "people who are very elegantly dressed but not dressed for fine dining" on the other side of the room, and "everyone is happy."
He recalled a recent evening when a well-dressed couple was sitting on a banquette and Briguet seated another couple next to them. After about half an hour, the man took off his jacket.
"In the old days I would go over and I would ask him to put the jacket back on, but today with the business being difficult, you don't want to frustrate anyone," Briguet said. As it turned out, it was the woman on the banquette who would register a complaint, asking Briguet, "very discreetly," to be seated at another table.
"When she left, she said, 'I'm not choosing to sit for dinner next to a man without a jacket,'" Briguet said. "But those days of jacket and tie are practically over. We're getting more and more younger people because after 52 years, some of our first friends have moved to Florida or paradise or Mexico."
Two early rule-breakers at Le Périgord got away with it, though.
Truman Capote, who used to live around the corner from the restaurant, came in without a tie. Briguet told him that he could not seat him without a tie. So the following week Capote arrived back at the restaurant wearing a beautiful jacket and tie on top but Bermuda shorts on the bottom. Briguet said he thinks Capote might have expected to be turned away again, but he told him, "Monsieur, you have such beautiful legs. I wish people had such legs as you." Capote got a table for two that day.
The first woman he allowed in the restaurant with pants was Jackie Kennedy, around 1966: "In those days a woman was not allowed in a restaurant with pants," Briguet said. "I was the first fine dining restaurant to let Miss Jacqueline Kennedy in with black pants! She came in with a governor of New Jersey. I still remember the table." The hot pants fashion followed, and soon restaurateurs had no choice but to allow them.
Just like today, when even the fanciest restaurants will give a table to men who aren't wearing ties.