I rarely notice what waiters wear.
When I do, it’s because what they’re wearing makes a curious impression, like the tee-shirts with surly slogans I spied once at a regrettable, long-since-dead pizza place in North Bend. It was the only thing open one night on our way across the pass, and while waiting 45 minutes for our leather-crusted pie we had plenty of time to check out the waiter’s shirts, which bore slogans like, “Yes, I’m sure it’s decaf,” and “I promise I won’t spit in your food.” (Not direct quotes, but you get the idea.)
Since that night of bad food and worse humor I’ve frequently thought back upon the fatal self-destructiveness of messaging like that, in an industry with one job and one job alone: To make its customers feel welcome. Sure it was a casual, strip-mall place, and I’m sure they thought the shirts were funny. Here’s what I think: That finding funny ways to disparage your customers is the fast-track to former-restaurant status.
Though I’ve never seen that level of stoopid humor in Seattle restaurants, I have observed other ill-advised sartorial calls. Waiters with gross stains on their aprons. Busers with unkempt hair and half-untucked shirts. Servers floating in a cloud of fragrance. (Really, pretty please, no. When you do that, diners can’t taste their food.)
In general, standard Seattle waiter fare is black or white shirt, black pants, crisply tied apron. Sometimes a tie. Sometimes jeans. All of which obey the adage: If the diner doesn't notice it, it’s probably right.
But recently Seattle has seen a little flurry of new restaurants of some culinary pretension opening in residential areas—and this brings up an interesting problem. Salare in Ravenna, Vendemmia in Madrona, and Entre Amis in Queen Anne are all “neighborhood restaurants” but with relatively formal menus, and therefore they’re potentially a little confusing for diners. In places like these, the servers’ sartorial statement goes a long way toward telegraphing for the diner: This is the kind of restaurant you’re in.
By that standard, Vendemmia radiates the most formal message, with servers garbed head-to-toe in starched black. On my recent visit they looked crisp and competent and terrific—the most professional statement from any of the three aforementioned restaurants—which sent the implicit message: This place is a slightly bigger deal than your standard neighborhood drop-in. And that’s great for Vendemmia, whose food (on my early visits at least) justified the elevated standard.
On the other hand…elevated standards can bring baggage of their own, setting expectations that can be at odds with the vibe of bedroom neighborhoods. In determinedly down-to-earth Madrona, upmarket restaurants have historically faced resistance. Remember Supreme? Remember Coupage? In the end, Madrona simply saw itself as too homespun for such fancy destinations. Will that be the case for Vendemmia?
Seattle is changing—Madrona right along with it (witness the recent closure of its uber-populist Madrona Eatery and Pub)—and perhaps just as its residential neighborhoods see more density, they will also be seeing more destination restaurants. And with them...more sartorial conundrums.