The Gastronaut: No Jacket Required

What really caused the American restaurant renaissance.

I was a restaurant critic for more than 10 years, and during that time, I owned two ties. One was my funeral tie; the other was green. I had one jacket, and it spent far more time sealed in its dry-cleaner bag than it did on my person.

I frequented places where a jacket and tie would have instantly marked me as some kind of narcotics agent or worse—Russian Mafia bars and late-night Japanese karaoke joints, neighborhood taquerias and humid pho shops in locales generously described at “edgy.” But I spent just as much time in establishments where the appetizers cost more than my watch, and dinner for me and a couple of my professional mouths (including bar tab) could easily top what I’d paid for my first car. In my good jeans, button-down shirts and the occasional Nice Sweater (Christmas presents all), I never felt out of place among the swells, because—lucky me—I got to enjoy the best of my critic’s years in an age in which restaurants, cuisine and dining, both fine and not-so, were boldly hijacked by … well, by men and women a lot like me.

There are a lot of theories out there to explain the sudden and overwhelming renaissance of American dining in the late ’90s and early ’00s. People who claim to know about such things will say it was the rise of California Cuisine (which, in turn, made way for a renewed interest in American Cuisine as a gestalt canon), a shift in appetites that led to demand for (and then supply of) fresh and local ingredients, or the economic bounce of the dot-com boom that suddenly left young professionals with more disposable income than they could reasonably spend on coke and hair gel. But they’re all wrong. What really did it was dress code. Or, more to the point, the refusal of my contemporaries to adhere to any.

The biggest, most affecting change in American dining over the past 50 years has been the near-absolute scouring of the phrase “jacket and tie required” from our restaurant scene. There was a time when all fine dining was treated, experientially, like a trip to church. There was the chef—a bloody demigod standing behind a butcher’s-block altar—who had to be approached in supplication and silence. A fancy meal was as inevitably serious as it was French, and while enjoyable, it was not exactly fun. As in church, you were expected to dress in your best, sit up straight, and be quiet and respectful. You went out to dinner as a route to bliss (maybe), but more often as a petitioner to grace: If you wanted a good feed, there were rules that needed to be followed.

Today, casualness rules—not a rude or disrespectful casualness, but an understanding between chef and customer that while sweatpants will not do, there is no natural law that says a necktie will make the sole taste finer. The relaxing of dress codes opened the way for a younger clientele that had previously balked at them. The result was the rise of the neighborhood bistro and the cafe—places where a new generation of chefs met a new generation of customers.

Dining hasn’t looked the same since. Or better.