The restaurant dress code is by and large a thing of the past. Once we wore jackets, now we wear whatever. That blazers are no longer even suggested—let alone required—is all part of a general casualification of fine dining felt on both sides of the house and all angles of the table. The demise of white tablecloth dining has coincided with the disappearance of the suited diner and the decline of the penguin suit waiter. These are dark days for linen.
But it is not all or even primarily just slobbery among the service sector. It’s just democratization. In fact, as eating out edges ever closer to supplanting other forms of entertainment—panem et circensis, Cirque de Soleil, Fox News—the theater of the restaurant has become just as important as what comes out of the kitchen. A dining room without a well thought out waitstaff uniform is like a movie set without Deborah Nadoolman Landis; the illusion is incomplete. So it’s not that restaurateurs have given up but that today’s best uniforms are hardly uniform. Each is tailored to the overall aesthetic of the restaurant.
Of course New York restaurateurs long ago realized that the uniform designer is no less an important name to drop as the farm from which the milk-fed veal came. Since at least the mid-’90s, when Gramercy Tavern outfitted its waiters in Armani suits and Donna Karan provided the dress shirts, vests, and green-and-black ties at Union Square’s Union Pacific or Jonathan Waxman kitted out his staff at Washington Park in Thomas Pink, waiters have long looked good. As for men, the goal seemed to be that they should look as if they weren’t quite on par with the patrons but not too far away. They belonged to the same country club, that is, even if their tee times weren’t comparable. (The burden of dressing to please, however, has historically been more keenly felt among waitresses, among whom, not incidentally, sexual harassment has long been an issue.)
These days, though, the ideal isn’t parity but theatricality, and the measure of a great waiter uniform isn’t that it is merely splendiferous but that it is appropriate. The way a waiter is dressed is as important as how the salad is dressed.
In 2013, Jeff Zalaznick, Mario Carbone, and Rich Torrisi of Major Food Group opened a pricey homage to the red sauce joints in which Rich and Mario—collectively known as the Torrisi Boys—had grown up eating in in New York City. In this iteration, though, the veal Marsala costs a cool $54 and the tortellini al ragu $29. And the captains, who perform elaborate a table preparation of Caesar salad and bananas flambé, wear custom-made burgundy Zac Posen tuxedos. “They’re definitely a statement,” says Carbone. The ’50s- and ’60s-inspired tuxes, which bear a wide satin peak lapel, are accompanied with a light pink shirt, a burgundy bowtie, and black cap toe shoes. Sartorial echoes are evident in the double breasted eight-buttoned tuxedo vest—also Zac Posen, also burgundy—worn by the bartenders. In most circumstances, the tuxedo and the superannuated captains who wear them, and even the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern via Bensonhurst patter with which they engage, might be over the top. But at Carbone, where all the colors and flavors are supersaturated, it fits perfectly.
Name: Enrico “Ricky” TinelliAge: 40Position: Captain
Another Major Food Group endeavor, Dirty French opened in a Lower East Side hotel, the Ludlow, in 2014. If Carbone channels the red sauce joint, Dirty French, as its name suggests, riffs on the French bistro, extruded through the Lower East Side circa the Koch years. Certainly the menu draws from the land of the mother sauces. Pommes are frites, pois are petits, and the duck is l’orange. But, as Carbone points out again, “We’re also in the Lower East Side so we needed it to feel like it was in the Lower East Side.” The solution was in the footwear. Jeff Zalaznick, who happens to be a serious sneakerhead (he has two storage facilities full of mint condition dead-stock sneakers) suggested outfitting every server with a pair of Air Jordans. “It was an insane idea,” says Carbone. “That’s a lot of money.” But it’s worth it. At Dirty French, it isn’t the dark Levi’s 501s or Brooks Brothers button downs or even the custom made Hedley and Bennet aprons that draw comments. It’s the Air Jordans. (His Airness himself once stopped by and was, naturally, a fan.) “We buy the Jordans for them and try to keep them fresh,” says Carbone. This involves rigorous cleaning and a proscription against wearing them off premises. Between shifts, the shoes are kept in a locked cage.
Name: Nick MonteleoneAge: 22Position: Captain
Name: Diego SanchezAge: 34Position: Bartender
Everything is glamorous and under the microscope at Le Coucou, the hottest restaurant opening in these parts since Carbone debuted in 2012. The players are mighty and massive. Stephen Starr is a powerhouse restaurateur from Philadelphia. Chef Daniel Rose is an American who took Paris by storm with Spring and has now returned bearing with him stew provençale and tripe with “souvenirs oublié de Lyon.” The space itself, a former Holiday Inn lobby on Lafayette Street in Nolita, has been transformed by the design firm Roman & Williams as a mix of the polished (long, tapered candles, beautiful floral arrangement, antique furniture) and the unfinished (a rough ceiling full of ducts for those who look up). So too are the uniforms both polished and rough.
“What started as a casual bistro attire evolved into full suits,” said general manager Troy Weissman. “We wanted the outfits to convey the high level of service and knowledge we offer.”
The wool and poly blend suits are thin-cut, single breasted in charcoal gray with flat front tapered pants. Each one of the 40-50 suits made are custom tailored for the captain by Kim Nguyen of Kimmie Kakes. (Don’t be fooled by the rather unfortunate substitution of Ks for Cs. Kimmie Kakes is a high-end uniform powerhouse.) But again, close inspection is rewarded. Not that you have any reason to but if you look down, you’ll notice the captains are wearing high top seven loop boots. “Robin [Standefer of Roman & Williams] thought we needed something rough to balance out the suits, to make them more downtown.” Most staff prefer black Doc Martens. As for the captains, each one wears a small custom cast of a branch as a lapel pin as a nod to Rose’s Parisian restaurant Spring. “We joke that it’s the branch that the coucou sits on,” says one captain, Chad Parenzin.
Name: Chad Parenzin
Le Turtle, a “French New Wave” bistro in the Lower East Side from restaurant whisperers Taavo Somer and Carlos Quirarte that opened earlier this year, isn’t the first restaurant to clad its servers in jumpsuits, but it is certainly the most striking. (At the beginning of the millennium, Roy Liebenthal outfitted his model-like waiters at SoHo’s Pop in mechanic overalls.) Le Turtle is as much a work of performance art as is it a place for dinner, and the performers are dressed accordingly. It’s vaguely unsettling, in the best way possible, to have a Sasso Chicken—head and feet attached—served to you by an impossibly beautiful man in a drop-crotch low-waisted jumpsuit, but it feels of a piece.
For their jumpsuits, Somer and Quirarte tapped Aimee Cho and Kimberly Wesson of 1.61—motto: Utilitarian. Uniform: Unisex. Somer cites “the future, as interpreted by sci-fi films like Aliens, 2001, and Logan’s Run” as inspiration for the uniforms. The jumpsuits, he says, easily distinguish them from the guests, while the garment-dyed gray renders them purposefully dull: “The way that a puppeteer wears all black,” he says. For their part, Cho and Wesson say, “The jumpsuit is the perfect manifestation of this idea of pared down gender neutrality and feeds into an important design touchstone for us, which is the idea of a uniform.”
Name: Marques StewartAge: 30Position: Host
Casa Cruz at Spring Street Studios
Not since the infancy of Indochine have the fashion world and the food world formed a more perfect Venn Diagram than at Casa Cruz, a supposedly temporary installation at the Spring Street Studios that opened in July. What started as a pop-up from Argentinian bon vivant, former equity banker, and restaurateur Juan Santa Cruz (who runs Casas Cruz in London and in Buenos Aires) shows no signs of abating. Inside the sixth floor dining room, which hitherto has served, aptly, as a venue for runway shows, tables cluster around an illuminated oak tree and faces cluster around cellphones documenting the fun being had therein. Everyone looks like they have a million Instagram followers, and no one looks like they eat the steaks. The waiters at Casa Cruz are uniformly comely, sometimes so much it feels distracting, but Santa Cruz wanted the uniforms to be homely or at least home-like. Each server is kitted out in a white Mao jacket, navy trousers, and black oxford shoes, the way they are in his London and Argentinian outposts. It is a throwback, says Santa Cruz, to the waiter outfits he grew up with in South America: blue Mao jackets during the day; white jackets at night.
Name: Victor Osbourne