The Official Dos and Don'ts of Restaurant Dress Codes

When making a dinner reservation, there are many factors I take into consideration: Are there gluten-free options (celiac girls, raise your hands)? Is there a spicy marg on the cocktail menu (a true necessity)? What kind of dress code are we looking at? As a true fashion girl, I'm always looking for a chance to dress to the nines—except, that is, when I'm not.

Sure, on a Friday night I'm more than happy to don a silky slip dress and a pair of mules with chic accessories. When I'm coming from the gym on a Saturday morning, however, casual is key. The world of restaurant dress codes can be tricky, especially in a city like New York where there are thousands of restaurants to navigate. 

Whether you are, in fact, coming from the gym and looking for a quick bite to eat as I am practically every Saturday morning, or you’re out on a date a seeking a more romantic experience, it’s important to choose a restaurant that reflects the environment you will feel comfortable in. From casual to formal, there is a wide range of dress codes in between that can be difficult to decipher. Read on to explore the dress codes you should be aware of, though of course they're not hard and fast rules. The only rule that ever matters is that you dress in whatever makes you feel best. 

Casual 

What to Avoid: A casual dress code at a restaurant is honestly a little vague. In general, going out to eat means dressing a touch more elevated than something you'd be wearing to cook dinner at home. Since this is the least dressy of the dress codes, it's open to interpretation, but we'd probably avoid wearing head-to-toe activewear.

What to Wear: That being said, the idea is still to be comfortable but polished. You're aiming for that effortlessly chic look that seems as if you just threw on an outfit and strolled out the door while coincidentally looking supremely stylish. I'm talking boyfriend jeans and a nice blouse with a pair of slingback mules. Or a flowing midi skirt, cropped top, and flat sandals. Grab a bucket bag and you're ready for a delightful dinner. 

Business Casual

What to Avoid: The term "business" is an important addition to this category. While the sleek jeans you styled for a casual dinner can be considered acceptable in certain business settings, focus on a chic pant to err on the side of caution.

What to Wear: Business casual, though it may seem obscure for a restaurant, is easy to understand as it's what one would typically wear to work. While that concept can become a little hazy for the fashion girl who wears trendier outfits to the office, the idea is to maintain a professional, appropriate, and elegant appearance. Imagine the outfit you would wear when taking a client out to lunch. Personally, this brings to mind a tailored pant, oversize blazer, and graphic tee with a pair of simple oxford loafers. Sophisticated and stylish, but not overly stuffy.

Casual Elegant

What to Avoid: This category is heavy on the elegant, light on the casual. Think meeting your grandma for tea at the Plaza, not necessarily what you'd wear to take your dog for a morning stroll. Unless you're on one of Emily Ratajkowski's infamous dog walks, that is. 

What to Wear: If someone had to describe my style in two words, I would not be upset if they described it as "casual elegant." Though not exactly the standard I maintain on a daily basis, it is certainly in my fashion vocabulary when going on a date, meeting my girls for an evening drink at Soho House, or impressing my parents with an upscale dinner when they come to town. The elegant part of the casual means adding a stylish dramatic flair to a typical evening outfit for a night out on the town. Turn up the heat with a silk slip dress, wrap, mules, and a clutch to fit the casual elegant bill. This outfit is sure to draw compliments all night. 

Formal

What to Avoid: Finally, this is your time to dress to the nines! Instead of your daily fashionable look, use this as an excuse to ditch your beloved jeans (it's hard, I know) and wear the outfit of your dreams.

What to Wear: Truly formal occasions are so few and far between that I relish the opportunity to shimmy into that extra bit of glitz and glam. Formal dress codes require ravishing cocktail dresses, suits, or even gowns, with the ability to spice it up per your personal style. While this is not the Met Ball, it's certainly an opportunity (and justification) to do a special shopping trip. Look for sleek long dresses, a slight heel, and a top-handle bag for the ultimate dining outfit. Your outfit is sure to be just as exquisite as the meal itself—if not more so. 

Have a particularly formal event coming up? Here's what to wear to a wedding.