All Tim Stalker wanted was a restaurant where he could get dressed up and take his lady friend out for a classy night on the town.
So it's the night before New Year's Eve, at one of the nicest restaurants in the Southtowns, Stalker in his suit and his sweetheart in her little black dress. At the next table: a guy in his 50s wearing a baseball cap.
"Granted, it's a Yankees cap so he's got some points coming," said Stalker, a Met Life insurance salesman from Orchard Park. "But come on. Isn't there any place left with a dress code?"
No, is the short answer. The dress code has joined the spittoon in Western New York restaurant history. Zero public restaurants still tell men they have to don a jacket or tie before being seated -- and few, if any, would challenge a man in jeans and a golf shirt.
Private dining rooms, at the private social clubs and country clubs, may still insist. But unless you're paying thousands of dollars for the privilege, you can't guarantee your fellow diners will dress up to the occasion.
"Putting a suit on on a Saturday makes that an event, and I want to go to an event," Stalker said. "I want to be surrounded by people who want to go to an event, who took the time. I shouldn't have to join a club to do that."
Changing attitudes about formal clothing, the place of restaurants in diners' lives, and the uncertain economy all had a hand in killing the dress code, according to restaurateurs and fine dining fans.
The dress code's last Western New York bastion may have been Oliver's, on Delaware Avenue, which removed the "Proper Attire Required" sign from its foyer about eight years ago.
"I just got tired of arguing, got tired of the verbal debate, and we were starting to lose business," said Henry Gorino, an Oliver's owner. "It was the old, 'My jeans cost $300 and his khaki Dockers cost $40.' What are you going to do?"
That doesn't mean fine dining establishments have no standards left. "We are still fussy," Gorino said. "During the summer there are still no shorts," but even that depends on the circumstances, Gorino said.
"It really is a biased call on our part," he said. "If our best customer came in in the middle of the summer in a nice pair of Bermuda shorts, we'll let him in."
Depending where you went, the dress code in Buffalo was more a state of mind than a written rule. Rue Franklin, which earned a reputation as one of Buffalo's most buttoned-up restaurants after 30 years of serving fine French food, has never had a dress code.
That was for two main reasons, said owner Joel Lippes.
Roughly 40 years ago, after happily dining across Paris with his wife, Lippes tried to dine at a swank French place in Manhattan. "I was told, 'Monsieur, you have to wear a coat and tie.' I said, 'We were just in Paris and didn't need a suit and tie.' He said, 'Well, this is New York.' So we left."
The young Lippes vowed that his place would not have a dress code.
The second reason was that as a practical matter, he said, people cared to dress for dinner. "For 25 years of running this restaurant we never thought about it because people, in my opinion, took more pride in their appearance," said Lippes. "I never wanted to tell an adult what to wear, or not to wear."
This summer, however, Lippes found himself wondering if his long-standing policy should change. It's not a problem during cooler months, but in warmer weather more customers were showing up in jeans, golf shirts, even shorts.
You should put a sign in your front door, some customers urged Lippes. He's not convinced.
"I hate those signs," Lippes said, counting them among other ways restaurants can feel inhospitable. "I hate calling back the day of a reservation, or giving a place a credit card so they don't get stiffed. I hate rules."
When she saw a man wearing shorts walk into Rue Franklin, Linda Nenni, a Rue regular, remembered thinking: "I can't believe he would walk into a nice restaurant dressed that way."
But the formal dress habits of professionals have changed significantly in the last decade, and that seems to have changed standards for dinner dress, said Nenni, a former Kaleida general counsel who now sells couture clothing.
"When I started practicing law, we all wore our pinstriped suits at the office," said Nenni. Now the attorneys among her clientele who "were always coming in looking for a suit say they always dress down in the office," Nenni said. "They don't wear the suit unless they're going to court."
To Nenni's eye, much of the change in professional clothing standards came after the dot-com boom. When the press was filled with images of casual billion-dollar chief executive officers, like Steve Jobs on stage running meetings dressed in jeans and a pullover, the days of the mandatory suit were over.
The pendulum has swung so far to the casual side that Chuck Mauro, an owner of Siena, finds himself reassuring potential customers who see him wearing a tie while he carries out his greeting duties.
"Sometimes people will turn around at the door if they see us dressed too formally," Mauro said. "They're concerned that if they come to the door in jeans, they might not be appropriately dressed for the restaurant."
He tells them to relax: "You don't have to wear a tie to have a pizza."
The dress code might be dead, but the stories will live on.
One day about eight years ago at the Rue Franklin, Lippes' wife Andree greeted a young man wearing shorts and sandals. ("He was the exception then," Joel remembered.)
"In a nice way, she said, 'Oh you can't come to a nice restaurant like this. You have to go home and put on a pair of slacks and a nice shirt,' " said Joel, recounting the story. "His girlfriend waited and he actually went home and did it."
"Somehow they thought it was humorous. They ended up getting married here a year or two later. They still come in the restaurant, and we always laugh about that."
The customer had a "nice sense of humor," said Lippes. "We can't always expect people to take it that way, so we don't say anything anymore."