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A woman from the 1920s holds up a hanger with a dress and looks at it while holding a white dress in her other hand. Everett Collection/Shutterstock

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What to Wear to a Restaurant for Any Occasion

Take the stress out of figuring out how to dress, so you can focus on important things — like what to order

Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

The world of dining and drinking is an obstacle course wrapped in a labyrinth wrapped in a logic puzzle — it’s full of pitfalls, gray areas, and bewildering questions that really shouldn’t even be questions (How do I find the bathroom?) and yet, somehow, are. Fortunately, your friends at Eater are here to help: Life Coach is a series of simple guides to the arcane rituals of modern dining. Have a question or a quandary you’d like us to tackle? Drop Life Coach a line.

“No shirt, no shoes, no service” is pithy, but it doesn’t really say much about what the shirt and shoes should actually be. And if you’ve never been to a particular restaurant, deciding how to dress is even harder: Without knowing firsthand what the vibe is, it can be difficult to gauge what’s appropriate. Clothing has tremendous power. It helps give us a sense of belonging and the confidence to be ourselves, and when the items don’t quite fit (either in mood or in the literal sense), it can distract us from and even ruin what could have been a fun, meaningful night out.

So, what should we be wearing to restaurants to help us harness the power of clothes for good? Eater is here to help.

But before we dive in, let’s just lay bare some of the assumptions that float beneath something as seemingly innocuous as a dress code, whether formalized or unspoken. Dress codes, and perceptions of what constitutes “appropriate” attire are subjective at best, and racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic, and classist at worst. I want to take a moment here to acknowledge my privilege here as a cis white woman with the financial means to have a full wardrobe. And with that, let’s get into it.

1. Do some research

If you know literally zero things about the restaurant you’re going to, and want to know how the other folks going there generally dress, head to its Instagram place page. You should be able to glean a partial view of the clientele’s attire from the inevitable bathroom selfies and group photos at tables. Instagram photos arguably give a slightly dressier or vibe-y-er look at what the crowd will be wearing. After all, most people don’t take selfies if they don’t think their outfit is on point or if they’re just having a regular lunch.

Another good, but not always decisive, measure is to look at the cost when determining how formal a space is. If you’re heading out to a tasting menu temple, chances are there might be a dress code listed on the website, even if it’s as simple as “come as you are.” It’s worth looking at, especially for men, since some places like steakhouses and other white-tablecloth restaurants are still jacket-required.

2. There’s no such thing as overdressed

I’m not sure I believe in overdressed at all. The most important person you’re getting dressed for is yourself. If you want to wear your favorite cocktail dress to the local diner, or put on your new suit to crush some tacos, do you. You are the one deciding what the meal means to you, and you have every right to dress the way you want to experience it, even if it’s different from the table sitting next to you.

Personally, I tend to worry more about feeling underdressed than overdressed, in no small part because the very act of worrying about whether I’m underdressed means I’m participating in thinking I know to be exclusionary. (Shakes fist at the system.) And yet, I don’t relish the feeling of walking into a room and finding myself the odd one out for being in sneakers, as I recently experienced on a Saturday night at a great restaurant in New Orleans. After a few years of living in California, where dressing more casually is the norm, it didn’t occur to me that in New Orleans, the dining crowd tends to dress up a little more to go out.

So here’s what I’ll say on how to avoid being underdressed: As mentioned above, if you’re going to a tasting menu or super expensive restaurant, do a little social media investigating before putting together your outfit. If it’s unclear, slacks and collared shirt for men is a safe bet, and a jumpsuit, a dress, or pants (maybe even denim) and a blouse for women still ought to do it. Nobody is ever required to wear heels. They’re uncomfortable and bad for your body (I do wear heels sometimes, but no restaurant has the right to demand I slowly destroy my back and feet). An expensive meal is inherently an occasion, at least for me, and I like to celebrate things by dressing up. I enjoy it. I also think that my dressing up is a way of paying respect to the folks who are putting in so much work into my evening.

So much of not feeling or looking underdressed to me has to do with intent: Did I put effort into making myself look nice? Even with sneakers, it’s a different thing to wear a clean pair than one I wore to the gym a few hours before.

3. Anticipate spillage

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of dining out professionally, it’s that getting food on your shirt or pants is, ultimately, inevitable. More inevitable for some (me!) than others. With that in mind, do think in advance about what the food you’re having might mean for your clothes. For example, when I’m going to a restaurant with food I think is highly likely to end up on my shirt (saucey noodles come to mind here), I’ll reach for something dark, or highly patterned, and, ideally, machine washable. (And if a stain happens, I’ll get some sparkling water to blot it. I’m convinced that helps.)

4. Choose your outfit ahead of time

Since I’m a stickler about punctuality, I urge you to choose your outfit well in advance of your outing. Consider wearing it to work, if you’re going to dinner after a day at the office. Last minute dithering when it comes to choosing what to wear or how to style yourself is a leading cause of lateness, according to field studies of my friends and coworkers.

5. What not to wear — seriously

A recent controversy on a United Airlines flight where a white man wore a shirt suggesting that journalists should be lynched is a reminder that people need to carefully consider how messages on their clothing make others feel. As someone who dines out a lot, here’s what I hope for from my fellow dining companions:

Please don’t wear anything to a restaurant that makes someone — especially the people working there — feel unsafe. Your definition may vary from the establishment’s on the subject, and ultimately, they get to make the call, not you. If you’re wearing clothing with messages of hate, you do so at the risk of being kicked out of the place. And even if you’re not kicked out, know that your t-shirt or cap might have just made someone’s day — someone who’s simply trying to get their work done and go home — a little bit harder and a little bit worse. Don’t be that person.

6. Pick something that will make you feel comfortable

Comfort is key. Are you heading to a taco stand in LA? You may well have to stand, so wear shoes with support. Are you going to a multi-hour meal? Skip that pair of pants that digs in. I generally avoid tight clothing while dining out entirely, because who needs to be pulling or tugging when there’s pizza to be eaten?

If you tend to run hot or cold, go for layers. Some restaurants blast the A/C while others have open-fire hearths with heat that creeps into the dining room.

The ideal restaurant outfit is, above all else, an outfit you feel great in. Often restaurants are spaces where we come together with people we love to celebrate, to catch up, and yes, to share a meal. It’s more fun to do that when you feel good in your clothes.

P.S. If you’re more worried about where to eat, start with our 2019 Best New Restaurants.

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