|By Karen Robinson-Jacobs, The Dallas Morning News|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Aug. 7, 2004 - Houston's, a 27-year-old upper-end, casual dining chain, is just the kind of place you might visit for a sit-down meal after shopping or for a more special occasion.
But it's not the kind of place you'd want to visit or be allowed to visit if you're a man wearing a tank top.
Or a man wearing a hat ... or even a small boy wearing a baseball cap.
Or, in some cases, anyone wearing cut-off shorts.
Or anyone talking on a cellphone.
For reasons company officials decline to explain, Houston's has instituted a dress-and-etiquette code at restaurants across the country though the permutations vary by location.
Signs painted on the doors, or wording printed on menus, admonish male patrons on how to dress and all customers on how to handle their cellphones in the restaurant.
While restaurants nationwide have been trying to upgrade their image by improving their menus, it's rare for an eatery to put part of the onus for the image upgrade on the patrons.
What's more, the country as a whole has become more laid back ΰ la "casual Fridays"with many high-end restaurants relaxing their dress codes.
The Houston's approach has been applauded by some patrons who don't want to dine next to hairy-armed men jabbering away loudly on cellphones.
Others see it as one more example of the food police dictating not what you eat, but how you eat it.
"It's very, very insulting that they think they need to tell us what to wear," said Victoria Boyd. The Preston Hollow resident said she was surprised by the policy recently, when a server at the Preston Road Houston's asked her to remove the baseball cap from her 7-year-old son's head.
"It's their restaurant; they have the right to do what ever they want to do. But it's insulting and arrogant to think that you know better than your clients what to wear."
The company did not return repeated calls for comment to the spokeswoman at the company's Phoenix headquarters, to founder George Biel and to board members. Several store managers declined to comment.
But one, who asked not to be quoted by name, said he's gotten no feedback from customers pro or con.
"I have not heard much of anything about the dress code," he said.
While the rules are in plain view, they do not appear to be slavishly enforced.
Plano residents Cathi and Gary Page represented a couple of Houston's dining don'ts at a recent visit to the Preston Road restaurant. She walked through the restaurant talking on her cellphone. Husband Gary seeking to conceal fresh-from-a-swim-party hair was wearing a blue baseball cap.
While on their way to the restaurant patio to wait for friends, both walked by five black-clad staff members who said nothing.
Mr. Page said he didn't mind having to remove the cap once they were seated in the dining room, and both agreed that some form of cellphone restriction can help cut down on the cacophony.
"We're big sticklers on doing your business out of the restaurant," said Mr. Page. "I hate to hear somebody's business woes while we're trying to dine.
"If somebody calls, we go outside."
And that's proper etiquette, said Shelley Sutton, national coordinator with Denver-based Jon D. Williams Cotillions, a company that has taught etiquette since 1949.
"Typically, when people talk on a cellphone, they talk at a higher level," said Ms. Sutton, whose company offers a guide that includes cellphone etiquette. Most likely the decibel escalation is a symptom of Can-you-hear-me-now? syndrome.
"Yes," she said. "Everyone can hear you."
Ms. Sutton urges diners to keep cellphones on vibrate, check caller ID, take only those calls that are urgent and keep table talk time to a minimum.
As for the tank-top puzzler, she notes that the nation as a whole has become more casual. Her advice: "Look in the mirror and see if you look put-together."
So far, Houston's main competitors have not instructed their guests on how to dress or talk.
"You'll see people dressed from formal to casual in our restaurants," said Laura Cherry, a spokeswoman for the P.F. Chang's China Bistro restaurants, another upper-end, casual chain. She added, "If you want to talk on the phone, and you're with friends, eating, that's your business."
Likewise, McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant has no dress or etiquette code.
"Our restaurants are about diversity. It's about what the guests dictate," said spokesman Gregg LeBlanc, who added that it is common to see patrons talking on cellphones. And some wear hats.
"We're not a library," he said.
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