Stephanie Kara Jordan subscribes to the theory that being exposed to cold weather can make you ill. While working as a host at J&G Steakhouse—the former restaurant inside the W Hotel—she says she was required to wear a red jersey wrap dress without tights or a sweater, even during major snow storms. “I got very sick and had to take time off,” she says. “You had me standing in the lobby in a dress, freezing. Of course I got sick.”
Jordan worked as a host for 10 years. She loved strategizing where to seat guests and took pride in recognizing regular customers. The main drawback was always the style standards. At Mon Ami Gabi, where she worked from 2006 to 2010, the all black dress code frustrated her. “I love color,” she says. “Wearing all black killed my soul.”
At J&G, the dress code changed with each incoming manager. “They came around and let us wear sweaters, but the biggest part was around shoes,” Jordan says. One mandated 4-inch stiletto heels. “We were all aghast.” Hosts stand for hours and often help run food from the kitchen to tables when restaurants are slammed.
“They were looking at style over substance,” Jordan says. “They didn’t care about our needs. Customers don’t care. No one is looking at our feet.” That manager left and the person who succeeded them implemented a more sensible shoe policy.
But hosts aren’t just told how to dress to impress. “I’ve had male bosses tell me, ‘You need to wear makeup,’” Jordan explains. Worse yet, she says a manager at J&G Steakhouse asked her to wear her hair straight because it would look “more polished.” “I have curly, kinky, beautiful hair,” Jordan says. “It was very styled, but they said, ‘It’s not the look we’re going for.’”
Despite a general relaxing of service in restaurants, hosts remain under the microscope. Bosses scrutinize everything from what they wear to how they talk because hosts often supply diners’ first impression of a restaurant. Some seasoned industry pros believe more restaurants are recognizing the important role hosts play, and the professionalization of the position has affected how hosts dress in D.C. today.
“The host department is really where you make your money,” says Caro Blackman, a 25-year veteran of the local hospitality industry, who has been, at times, a server, bartender, manager, and host. She currently works at Maydan and says hosts set the tone and pace of service. Their responsibilities include taking reservations; seating guests in a way that’s fair to servers and not a burden on the kitchen; fielding questions; and manning the phones.
Being a host is challenging work that Blackman believes some undervalue. “They’re the unseen even though they’re the first to be seen,” she says. “They’re the first to be reprimanded if the timing is off. They’re the last to be praised if a night went smoothly. They’re also the first to receive abuse from guests and the first to be hit on.”
Hosts have two seconds to make an initial impression, according to Blackman. “The best way to instill trust in the guest is by greeting them with a smile and eye contact and having the best posture possible,” she says. “How we’re dressed has a huge impact on how the restaurant will be perceived.”
Like Jordan, Blackman has encountered some impractical dress codes in her time. “Years ago we had to wear heels,” she recounts. “You’re walking on all kinds of different surfaces that are wet and greasy … There were a few hostesses that would wear Band-Aids because their feet were bleeding. Upper management knew, but it was still enforced.”
Another restaurant asked Blackman to wear neutral nail polish; avoid red lipstick; limit earring size; and pull her hair back in a tight bun. “Not everyone can fit in that mold,” she says. “I’m black and West Indian. I have very curly hair—to slick it back in a bun is a nightmare.” Styling it that way caused her hair to thin, so she made a drastic change. “I’m cutting it off and not going back,” she says.
Some places Blackman worked asked hosts to wear uniforms. One required a suit in the winter and a wrap dress in the summer. While Blackman says she appreciated that her employer was investing in attire, she had a specific issue that explains the need for modifications.
“This was at the peak of my abusive relationship,” she says. “I was going through PTSD, having been violated repeatedly for 13 years. There was a point where I wanted to be covered up as much as possible.” She liked wearing blazers and turtlenecks. “But when spring came around, we had to wear wrap dresses that showed a lot of the chest area. It was hard for me to perform on the job. I had major anxiety and almost left because of it.”
Like most people, area hosts want some flexibility in how they dress at work, whether that means altering a uniform or wearing their own clothes. Having wiggle room not only lets hosts feel safe and confident, but Blackman believes letting some individuality shine through allows the guest to better connect.
“I prefer to wear my own clothes that are very professional looking,” says Abby, a part-time host in D.C. who has worked at Scarlet Oak and Magnolia Kitchen + Bar. At the latter, hosts were asked to dress “business casual.” For her, that meant dress pants and a blouse. She alleges that the owners preferred women wear dresses to attract customers, but owner Anthony Lupo disputes that. “With the wind and all the movement, I prefer business casual or jeans,” he says.
At her new job, she wears a uniform—black dress pants and a restaurant-supplied black blazer. She says it helps customers recognize who’s in what job, but ultimately Abby prefers wearing her own garments. “When you’re in uniform and it gets dirty, you are constantly washing it,” she explains.
Another host, Alexandra, is working as a host while studying at George Washington University. She describes the restaurant she works at as “fine dining” and “white tablecloth,” and was surprised to find out that there was no formal uniform when she took the job. “I was told to ‘look presentable,’” she says. Her bosses are fine with dresses with heels or boots or even jeans. Requirements for men are more clear-cut—khakis with a sport jacket.
“After working in a restaurant, you start to pick things up when you go out,” she says. “No matter where I’ve gone recently, it’s always been host’s choice. I never noticed a formal uniform. It’s more relatable.”
Sachelle Brooks likes working as a host because she feels like the “unspoken captain of the ship.” She agrees with Alexandra that uniforms have largely fallen by the wayside since she moved here three years ago. “Most places haven’t had a strict code at all,” she says. “They say, ‘look professional,’ or ‘look clean.’”
A casual survey of other restaurants supported Brooks’ statement. Power dining spot BLT Steak asks its hosts to “dress up and dress professionally,” according to general manager Beau Monroe. “They can wear suits or pant suits or dresses, but are reminded to just keep it tasteful and conservative.” At Gravitas, one of D.C.’s newer fine dining restaurants that feel more casual, hosts are asked “to dress like they’re going to a cocktail party,” according to chef and owner Matt Baker. “For men we ask for a blazer and button down shirt, and for women we ask for a blouse with a blazer or a dress.”
While most report restaurants are moving away from uniforms, there will likely always be exceptions, according to Mirabelle general manager and beverage director Jennifer Knowles.
Knowles once worked as the wine director at The Inn at Little Washington. The bastion of fine dining plays by different rules. Knowles believes any establishment that’s competing for stars from Forbes or diamonds from AAA puts each staff member in a uniform with a name tag.
“When I got to the Inn, I was like, ‘This is cheesy,’ but then I realized it was an actual rule,” she says. A spokesperson for the Inn says there are actually no formal requirements, but hosts do wear name tags for accountability reasons and to better connect with guests. Plume inside The Jefferson hotel, a property with similar goals to the Inn, provides suit uniforms for hosts to wear with name tags.
Knowles is known for running a tight ship and agrees with Blackman that the host position is too often overlooked. When she first opened Mirabelle in 2017 and was dictating the dress code, she required hosts to wear the same suit and blouse. The following year, when Mirabelle reopened after a chef change, she elected to have hosts dress in all black clothes of their choosing. “I want them to imagine that they’re going to an office job,” she says. “It’s not casual Friday. It’s a high-end office job.”
That being said, she would never ask hosts to wear heels. “If your feet hurt you, you are not thinking about the guest and how happy they are,” she says. “Now people really want their staff to feel comfortable. Hosts are a huge part of the team. It’s not like they’re an extraneous part of the restaurant or some decoration.”
Knowles notes that the restaurant industry hired based on physical standards for too long. “But in our culture, that’s not tolerated [anymore],” she says. “If someone walks into a restaurant and sees all of the hostesses are 5’8” and weigh 120 pounds and know they don’t fit that model but have a good background and don’t get the job, I’m pretty sure someone is going to say something these days.”
Longtime chef and restaurateur Robert Wiedmaier remembers when restaurants and bars hired for attractiveness and asked women to don revealing clothing. While he says this practice likely continues today, he doesn’t see it much anymore. “In the really well run restaurants, you’re looking for maturity and professionalism,” he says. At his most formal restaurant, Marcel’s, he asks his hosts to dress elegantly but not in uniform.
Over his career spanning decades in D.C., Wiedmaier has come to realize just how critical the host position is. “Back in the day you put the cheapest person there to answer the phones and take reservations,” he says. “But that’s the lifeline to your restaurant.”
“In today’s market, if you’re not pushing the envelope on all levels, you’re going to lose,” he adds. Everything has to be special because right now people have a big-ass TV at home. Most people have Netflix. Most people have a kitchen and UberEats. It has to be something special to go downtown to a restaurant and spend money.”
Retaining talented hosts who are trained up and professional would seem like every restaurant’s goal, as the host position experiences high turnover. Being flexible with dress code accommodations and making room for hosts to express themselves can only help keep them.
“You want people to feel like the best version of themselves when they’re at the door,” Blackman says. “When a woman is feeling restricted or they can’t fit into a mold that the restaurant deems professional or beautiful, that’s when it chips away their self esteem.”