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The End of ‘Ladies First’ Restaurant Service

In scrapping certain customs, restaurants are redefining what “good manners” means for a new generation

You may not think you know classic service standards, but you probably do. Even if you’ve never worked in a restaurant, spend enough time in upscale establishments and you know the deal: Women are served first, going clockwise around the table, then men are served clockwise. That goes for every step of the service, from how the water is poured to the order in which orders are taken to how plates arrive to (and are set down on) the table. The same goes for wine, though the host (the diner who receives the “taste” pour from the bottle) is served last, regardless of gender. That’s according to the Court of Master Sommeliers, the training most beverage professionals undergo to learn the social graces of good service, which was founded in 1969. (Incidentally, that’s also the era in which women increasingly pushed back on restaurants’ discriminatory practices — in some American cities, women weren’t allowed to enter restaurants, or specific sections of restaurants, unaccompanied by a man until the 1970s.)

But at Chicago’s Tied House, which opened in February 2018, general manager Meredith Rush says there’s a way to provide thoughtful service without relying on those measures of old-school etiquette: Essentially, it’s omitted the idea of “ladies first.” The staff has eliminated language like “ladies and gentleman” from its vocabulary, and no longer serves guests in order of gender performance. “We’ll do our service as elegantly as we would if we were adhering to the classic standards,” Rush says.

Tied House is the latest in the trend of upscale restaurants implementing gender-neutral service standards, joining Chicago favorites Bad Hunter and Lula Cafe, among many more. Bad Hunter waitstaff is trained to pour wine and water clockwise around the table, regardless of guests’ gender, and both restaurants have removed gendered titles from their service vocabulary. You might notice these changes as a guest, or you might not. But in scrapping certain customs, these restaurant staffs — among many nationwide — are both reacting to and redefining what having “good manners” means for a new generation.

Of course, dining etiquette has differed from region to region, century to century, just like any set of socialized niceties. In Medieval Europe, it’s said the host and hostess were served first to prove the meal isn’t poisoned. Belching can mean anything from “I loved it!” to “I have no respect for you!” in any given time and place. Once a common courtesy, handing the male guest the check is now widely deemed archaic and sexist in most spheres of the United States.

In fact, only in the past few decades has the “ladies menu” — a menu identical to the men’s menu, with prices omitted — fallen from fine dining custom. The European practice was adopted by upscale American restaurants, including West Hollywood French eatery L’Orangerie, whose owners argued it was “a tradition done in the same spirit as lighting a cigarette or standing up when she enters a room.” (Critics would argue the practice, which assumes the male patron is always paying for the meal, was sexist, particularly as baby boomer women entered the workforce.) In 1980, the Parisian-inspired spot became the subject of a high-profile lawsuit that swayed public opinion against the ladies’ menu, at the hand of feminist attorney Gloria Allred. Still, though, the ladies menu remains in the most old-school corners of fine dining: Michael’s Gourmet Room at South Point in Las Vegas continues to adopt the obviously gendered custom. Which is to say, etiquette evolves with the times, but not at a rapid-fire pace.

Tied House’s chef, James Beard award-winner Debbie Gold, witnessed a relaxation of old-school service standards while helming the American Restaurant in Kansas City. “The restaurant was open over 40 years,” says Gold, “so we went from servers in black tie tuxedos with gueridons, and had to evolve into today’s world.” Just as the ladies menu —seen by many as “just good manners” in its time — is in hindsight ridiculous, it appears the practice of serving a guests “ladies first” is on a similar trajectory.

So how does service work at Tied House, if not ladies first? Easy: by seat number.

To understand gender’s role in wait service, a quick primer for those without restaurant experience: Each seat at a table is assigned a seat number — classically, seat one’s back faces the kitchen or the front door. When waiters take an order, they assign a dish to a seat number. At many upscale restaurants, an F (for “female”) will be attached to the seat number, as an indicator to the food runners the order in which dishes need to be placed. When serving ladies first, that F can eliminate the cumbersome nightmare of juggling dishes at the table. It makes things a little more graceful; it betters the service.

That F doesn’t exist at Tied House, but the seat numbers remain. “Now we’ll just be serving seat one first,” says Rush. “If seat one happens to be a woman, that’s fine.” Dishes are served clockwise from there.

Shaking that classic training is no easy feat. Rush’s previous experience as a sommelier at Lincoln Restaurante in New York City’s Lincoln Center and with Chicago’s Boka Restaurant Group have ingrained gender-based service standards into her bones; ditching those feels like a betrayal to what she’s been taught. “When I serve a gentleman first — especially when it’s two guests, one man and one woman — I do feel self-conscious,” she says, even using formal service titles as she speaks casually. “I think, ‘Do they think I don’t know what I’m doing, or I’m being rude or not paying attention?’” So far, Tied House hasn’t received any complaints about this — as some restaurants reported experiencing when they adopted gender-neutral service — but it’s a small source of anxiety nonetheless.

Tied House boasts women in multiple decision-making positions: Gold, of Top Chef: Masters fame, commands the kitchen, and Rush helms the front of house and the beverage program. This is Rush’s first GM gig (though she’s worked in restaurants for two decades), and thus her first real opportunity to shape the culture and service standards of her team. But the decision to go gender-neutral wasn’t a top-down one. Indeed, the overwhelming support of Tied House’s front-of-house team made the transition an easy one. “The fact that they were really excited and passionate about it made me feel the same way,” Rush says. Plus, servers are the ones engaging with guests most. “Sure, you can implement anything, but your staff are the ones on the front lines greeting literally every single guest.”

In the post-#MeToo era, folks of all genders are increasingly considering the sexism in seemingly innocuous happenings in their own lives. Tied House’s core team came together in January 2018, just three months after many of Harvey Weinstein’s victims came out in droves. Rush credits the discourse surrounding the #MeToo movement for prompting her to consider the day-to-day goings-on in her restaurants, for staff and guests alike, under harsher light. Adding up the little things that happen on a daily basis, Rush came to reconsider the service standards she’d been raised meeting throughout her career.

“Sometimes it’s just a small thing that can trigger a larger feeling in someone,” she says. While she doesn’t mind having the door held for her, she knows that her clientele could. In a worst-case scenario, “it could open up old wounds or remind someone they are ‘other’ in a way they never asked for.” And if Rush is more attuned than ever to gender-based inequalities, her guests probably are, too, she surmises. That means more opportunity to make guests feel “other”; she’d be failing to provide the finest service possible.

In order words, if you’re not serving women first, why bother evaluating your diners’ gender performance? It’s a simple decision, but one whose implications reach far beyond a runner’s dish load.

A woman is helped into her seat in a corner of a model of the Britannia Restaurant. Corbis via Getty Images

“What ever happened to being polite?” dissenters will inevitably say. “Good manners never hurt anybody.” Sure — and good manners are integral to good restaurant service. But the world is changing so that gender-based etiquette, in some circles, can be read anywhere from impolite to downright insulting.

While the rise of gender-neutral language is often chalked up to political correctness, a wealth of research suggests neutralization promotes gender equality in society at large. The role of gender in a language is often associated with a culture’s adoption of gender biases: Some argue there are more displays of sexism in cultures with grammatical gender languages (like Romance languages, Russian, German), than in English, in which most nouns are gender-neutral; genderless languages (like Finnish) show less gender bias than English. Gender-neutral language may not yet be mainstream worldwide, but there’s both space and precedence for it. In 2012, Sweden made history by becoming the first country to formally adopt a third, gender-neutral pronoun, hen. Though it was disliked at first, studies show the new word was viewed positively by a majority of Swedes by 2014. While challenging the gender binary often elicits hostile reactions, human language is malleable and our attitudes toward such changes are too.

Outstanding service means meeting every one of your guests’ wants and needs, even those they didn’t know they have. With the near-ubiquity of feminist discourse comes the shifting of priorities from people of all genders in public spaces. More women find it silly to be treated like a “lady” in public spaces; women aren’t always out to eat with their husbands and boyfriends (was that ever really the case?); a male-female two-top could be coworkers or friends, both straight or not.

And for transgender and non-binary patrons, the stakes are higher; manners can often become an issue of recognizing a person’s humanity. While pouring a person a server perceives as female first may seem like a polite, safe choice — innocuous, at worst — misgendering is a very real occurrence for many trans people, and can happen in far more ways than addressing a person using incorrect pronouns. Simply being served second or having a door opened can constitute passive misgendering, a surefire way to ruin someone’s day — and for the restaurant to potentially lose a customer. From a strictly service perspective, relying on perceived gender performance offers front-of-house staff more opportunities for more social faux pas.

“We’re here to ensure our guests are comfortable in every way possible,” says Rush. “If eliminating ‘classic’ parts of service can make it even more comfortable for our guests, then that means we’ve done what we can for right now.”

As the zeitgeist changes, so do the things that comfort us. In a world where folks are increasingly disassociating from traditional gender roles — and from the essentialist binary itself — scrapping such conventions isn’t just an opportunity for a restaurant to make a social statement, but a way to make patrons feel at ease. As transgender issues become more widely discussed and understood, gender-neutral bathrooms have become a common feature in upscale public establishments. Will gender-neutral service standards be next?

For Gold, the decision came down to a simple, universal value. “It’s about basic respect for people,” says Gold. “[The decision] wasn’t really a discussion, it was more about proper service than it is about female/male. It really doesn’t matter to me how people dress or what their preferences are, it’s just about basic, proper service.”

Grace Perry is a Chicago-based writer. Vivian Shih is an illustrator and designer based in Los Angeles, California.
Editor: Erin DeJesus