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In a Casual-Dining World, D.C. Is Still Comfortable in a Tie

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By Marc Fisher
Thursday, February 12, 2009

If New Yorkers want to go the way of Los Angeles, may God have mercy upon their souls. But here in Washington, the gents who run the city's jacket-and-tie restaurants say they will not go the way of Manhattan's famous 21 Club, which announced the other day that although ties are still "preferred," they are no longer a prerequisite to eating one of 21's $30 burgers.

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"We are not going to sell our soul to the devil," says Buzz Beler, owner of the Prime Rib, the K Street meat-and-potatoes spot that has maintained its jacket-and-tie rule for 33 years. "We have fine art on the walls. We spend a lot of money on fresh flowers. We buy the finest meat. Women love to get dressed for dinner, and they don't want to see some guy with hair sticking out of his collar."

Other cities may succumb to the infection of informality, but Washington still has enough "lawyers, lobbyists, generals and admirals," as Beler puts it, to support a handful of restaurants that insist on proper attire. The Prime Rib's siblings in Baltimore and Philadelphia gave in on the tie rule years ago, but "this is a different kind of city," Beler says.

Beler proudly quotes on his Web site from a glowing Esquire magazine review that begins: "At the Prime Rib, it's always 1965 -- the year it opened. . . . The waiters wear tuxes. You wear a jacket."

But even in Washington, you can feel the faint breeze of change: "We relaxed the dress rule at lunch a couple of years ago," the owner admits. He made the concession to tieless attire -- jackets still preferred -- when he saw a queue developing outside a competitor in the same building at lunchtime, "while here I was with, well, with capacity."

But at dinnertime, it's jacket and tie. Except, well, "if you come in new, high-fashion jeans, if you've got jacket and tie, that's okay. And if you have a decent turtleneck -- I'm not talking about a mock turtleneck -- that's acceptable, too."

Dress codes survive in the District, even in a recession, because diners understand that what you wear signifies who you are, says Robert Wiedmaier, the chef owner at Marcel's on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. "I don't turn people away if they don't have a tie on, but if you come without a suit and tie, you feel stupid."

This is not to say that fine dining establishments haven't felt the challenge from those who've adopted California casual living. "Starting about 15 years ago, you had all these young IT kids making big money coming in with this attitude of, 'Hey, I'm loaded and I can walk into this restaurant in T-shirt and jeans and they're going to feed me,' " Wiedmaier says. "They'd come in and order a $1,200 bottle of wine and look at you like, 'You gonna turn us away?' "

Being in business not merely to maintain standards but also to make a living, Wiedmaier has had to find diplomatic ways to satisfy both his regular customers, who like to dress up and resent seeing some schlump at the next table, as well as folks who spend big but don't understand what's wrong with wearing the same clothes to play ball and dine on roulade of rabbit.

Last summer, a man walked in wearing shorts. The Marcel's maitre d' "took him straight to the bar and let him sit there, and he was fine," Wiedmaier says. "Then, 10 minutes later, in walks the prime minister of Bermuda, wearing, yes, Bermuda shorts. They were probably a $1,000 pair of Bermuda shorts, but what am I supposed to do? I said, 'Get him in quick and sit him down before anyone sees the shorts.' You know, if it's August and the city is dead and it's hotter than Hades out there, you're not going to be turning down business."

So there is some flexibility that didn't exist in better economic times or before the words "business" and "casual" got married. "I won't allow T-shirts and tennis shoes," Wiedmaier says, "and if they're wearing jeans, we try to put them at the bar, but we're in the hospitality business -- we want to say yes."

To get to "yes," Georgetown's 1789 Restaurant keeps loaner jackets for those who arrive in shirt sleeves. "Every six months, we have to go out and buy more blazers," says General Manager William Watts, because some gents forget they've borrowed the coat and wear it home.

Even with slipping standards of dress, Watts can't imagine dropping the dress code. "Our decor almost demands it," he says. "You've got Limoges china, you got antique prints on the walls, you got waiters wearing tuxedos. Sure, things are tough nowadays, but if we dropped jackets, I don't think you'd see any significant increase in business."

There's something grand and ennobling about holding dear to rules that other places have discarded, and Washington is ever a place in search of distinctions. But even restaurateurs who work hard to create a special-occasion atmosphere admit they are fighting powerful social forces.

Such as the news from the White House, where the new president is seen sans jacket, in the Oval Office. In the best dining rooms, managers clutch their chests.

"Maybe I'm just old-school," says Wiedmaier, who is 48. "You know the attitude: 'It's 2009. Who gives a crap?' "

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at http://www.washingtonpost.com/discussions.


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