While big cities like New York or Chicago still maintain a few restaurants with dress codes, even Portland’s finest establishments take a relaxed attitude toward customer appearance. Is the dining scene here too casual?
I don’t think so. It gives me a little thrill that I can start my night with a drink at a relaxed West End pub like Ruski’s then walk to world-renowned Fore Street without switching out of sneakers. Even the glamorous hotel restaurants that opened in 2015 — Tempo Dulu, Evo, Union, TIQA — didn’t institute formal fashion prescriptions. Tempo Dulu manager Liz Totzeck said that’s because “we want everyone who comes in to feel relaxed, be comfortable, and enjoy their time here. Everyone’s welcome.”
It also delights me that Back Bay Grill, a fine dining institution with white tablecloths and a sterling reputation, refuses to cater exclusively to the fancy set. Owner Larry Matthews told me once that he occasionally has to explain to older men in suits that young men in T-shirts are also dressed suitably. On the other hand, I’ve heard from at least one person who felt embarrassed on his first trip that he didn’t wear something more “appropriate.” An unspoken code can still be a powerful one to overcome.
But even spots that once held guests to a strict standard have loosened their ties, so to speak. Top of the East in Portland used to list on its website a required look of “Casual Sophistication.” That’s no longer the case, and over the phone a staff member joked, “You have to be wearing something, but nothing fancy.” It’s an interesting move for the self-described “sophisticated lounge,” which probably feels in this time of decreasing formality that having a dress code was too great a limitation on its foot traffic.
Looking beyond the city limits, Kennebunk’s White Barn Inn, to my knowledge the only non-private restaurant in the state that recently required jackets for men, abolished that condition in 2015. Assistant innkeeper Albert Black explained the rationale to the Bangor Daily News last summer: “We don’t want to alienate the digital era, who like to express themselves through individual dress.” Insert thumbs-up emoji.
A dress code at its core attempts to deny entry to a certain class of person, but when the rich don casual clothing, it’s no longer lucrative to ban T-shirts. When even captains of industry like Steve Jobs began to favor jeans and black turtlenecks over suits and ties, restaurants had to get with the times or risk losing out on valuable customers.
What’s nice about a lack of wardrobe expectation is that it doesn’t require you to dress down. Two friends of mine who moved up from New York (a standard migration pattern these days) found themselves missing the dressier atmosphere of the big city. Their solution was to institute a monthly date night with a self-imposed “fancy clothes” rule, giving them a regular excuse to feel fine and eat well. They’ve yet to run out of places they can dress to kill and not feel out of place. And when they do, they can dress up and go to Ruski’s, too.
Don’t let a fear of being the most casually dressed — or the best — get in the way of your next meal.