In 1986, William Watts was in charge of commemorating Clyde’s Restaurant Group’s purchase of 1789 Restaurant in Georgetown. The general manager bought blue blazers from Britches and had them embroidered with the restaurant’s logo. They were to be 1789’s loaners – proper attire for those who’d forgotten their jackets. “But they only lasted about five or six weeks, and they all disappeared,” Watts laughs. “They were pretty snappy-looking.” He estimates that the 20 custom-decorated coats cost a “couple thousand” dollars.
Over the past two decades, Watts has purchased a lot of coats for the 1789 closet. Though the restaurant loans out only about one jacket per week, Watts needs to replace the collection of 20 to 25 loaners about once a year; he now sticks to navy blazers from the Men’s Wearhouse, whose jackets start at about a hundred bucks apiece.
In the years since the last embroidered blazer walked out the door of 1789, the world has become an even less friendly place for the dress code. “Everybody wore jackets and ties 20 years ago,” says Buzz Beler, owner of the Prime Rib. “You were in the nation’s capital, you wore a jacket and tie. It wasn’t casual like it is now.” Blame sartorial laziness, the American inclination toward comfort, and the effects of global warming, which are doing no favors to an already-swampy D.C.
“It is the inconvenient truth that it is hot” in Washington, says Beler. He’s riffing not only on the Al Gore flick but also on an ad he ran in the Washington Post announcing the K Street NW steakhouse’s September downgrade to less formal attire at lunch. It was a big change for Beler’s haunt, whose dinnertime dress code – both jackets and ties are required – is meant to pay homage to a bygone era. One that had never heard of “business casual.”
Nowadays, a golf shirt will get you past the maitre d’ stand at all but three D.C. eateries. Besides 1789 and the Prime Rib, only Michel Richard Citronelle still requires jackets at dinner. Citronelle’s Mel Davis keeps costs down by refreshing her stable of about 10 coats via discount men’s clothing stores or Goodwill. “We’re not spending a fortune on them, but they are in decent condition,” she says.
The Prime Rib’s Beler manages a closet of approximately 30 jackets, up to size 56, and about 50 ties. “There’s some really nice ties in there,” he says. “Maybe you shouldn’t say that.” He has cause to be worried; the restaurant’s ties need to be replaced frequently. But lucky for the Prime Rib wardrobe department, people will continue to kick the bucket: The restaurant replenishes its closet not only from men’s stores but also from the reasonably priced Christ Church on Wisconsin Avenue NW, whose stock is donated by the loved ones of the departed.
Why not just cut out the expense entirely? Beler, Davis, and Watts all maintain that most patrons go beyond grudging acceptance of the dress code to active appreciation. In fact, decorum-conscious diners are often inspired to make citizens’ arrests: “We’ve actually had customers approach tables in the past and ask diners to put their jackets back on,” says Watts.
Admonishments, though, are more likely to come from staff. On an early September weekday evening, two back-slapping business types belly up to the bar at the Prime Rib and doff their jackets in unison. One asks the approaching bartender about the restaurant’s selection of cigars; the bartender nods obligingly before tugging at his own lapels and softly asking, “Would you mind keeping your jackets on, please?” Like schoolboys, the two men nod rapidly and slip back into their coats. They light up their cigars and commence chortling; the tableau hurtles forward about six decades as the bartender adjusts the smoke-eating vents with his remote control.
The instinct to bare shirt-sleeves at the end of the day seems to jibe with recent trends in fashion and in food. “Restaurants are more casual and less conventional in many ways,” says former Post food columnist Phyllis Richman. “You can order in a more personal or eccentric way now: just appetizers; [you can] share dinners.” She also notes that working women have set a less formal standard for attire. Women are “dressing in suits all day, and they’re coming home and wanting to kick back and be more comfortable – rather than women looking for a chance to dress up.”
Beler also concedes that women set the standard, though to his mind, it’s an elevated one. He notes that proper attire guards against such offenses as hirsuteness: “As a woman, if you dressed out for a date, would you like to see your partner with hair sticking out from the neck of his shirt?” he asks.
It’s the battle cry of a soldier in the war against fleece and fannypacks. Jackets and ties are as intrinsic to the Prime Rib’s throwback decor as leopard-print carpeting and upholstered banquets. Just the thought of sitting in one of the restaurant’s ridiculously high-backed chairs in a polo shirt conjures images of a preschooler with dangling feet. “All my customers say, ‘Don’t ever change the policy,’” says Beler.
Those customers know branding. Watts’ initial response when asked why 1789 requires jackets is, “It was that way when we purchased the restaurant.” It’s the only restaurant in the Clyde’s family with such a dress code, and it’s staying on message: 1789 is the place where you have to wear a jacket.
A spot that gets a fair amount of attention due to its celebrity chef, Citronelle seems likeliest to shrug off the rule altogether. The restaurant relaxed its jacket policy during this summer’s heat wave, and Davis admits that there has been discussion about ditching it entirely. “Michel was talking the other day about maybe he didn’t want to do it anymore,” she says in early September. “He doesn’t like to wear a jacket.