On a Friday night around 7 p.m. prime time, a diner stepped into the golden lobby at one of the hottest new restaurants in San Francisco — the recently opened and objectively gorgeous Empress by Boon. According to his partner, who to be fair, says she was parking the car: The diner requested a table for two. The host gave apologies, saying the restaurant was fully committed. The diner asked if they could at least sit at the bar. The host gave apologies again, saying the restaurant has a dress code, and even the bar required a “collared shirt.”
“He definitely didn’t look disheveled,” his partner, who asked to remain anonymous because she works in the hospitality industry, tells Eater. “He had on a nice sweater and dark jeans. Maybe his shoes lacked luster.” Was he a tech worker, some may ask? Why yes, he has successfully founded several startups. But he was not wearing the uniform hoodie and sneakers, he had upgraded to a sweater and slip-ons. “For him that was dressed up! We were just surprised.” The couple carried on to have a cocktail at Mister Jiu’s, where they laughed about it with the bartender.
Per Empress by Boon’s website, the new restaurant does have a dress code: “Business casual dress requested, no shorts or t-shirts please.” But general manager James Minch would like to step in to smooth out any miscommunication about collars. “We apologize for that!” Minch says, who is still training his entirely new staff. “The dress code is very simple. There are very few restrictions.” He says a T-shirt is fine under a sweater or blazer, but the restaurant does draw the line at shorts and has turned a few other parties away. As in this instance, he says none were deeply upset, although a few were mildly surprised.
“I wouldn’t say we’re fine dining, but we are upscale, and we want our guests to feel comfortable dressing up,” Minch says. “Many people come to the Empress for special occasions, like birthdays and anniversaries.” Empress by Boon only opened a month ago on June 16, but the original Empress of China had a history as a special-occasion restaurant before that.
The original Empress of China, which was constructed in 1966 and reigned through 2014, did have a dress code in the past, and for decades many considered it part of the experience at the resplendent banquet hall. “It was part of the air and elegance of the restaurant,” Pearl Tom, a board member of the Empress of China, recalls. “The Empress was probably one of the very first white tablecloth fine-dining Chinese restaurants in San Francisco … It was a place that you got dressed up.” Tom says that her auntie, a renowned opera diva, sang at the grand opening ceremonies, and when she went in for dinner, would have made an entrance in a cheongsam silk gown — with the high collar and the side slit — and a mink stole. In the late sixties and seventies, men would suit up and the waiters wore tuxedos. For many years, jackets and ties were required, although in the last few years before the restaurant closed in 2014, they were so desperate for business, they would seat a party of T-shirt-clad tourists without comment.
These days, dress codes are exceedingly rare in San Francisco. A quick check of even the fanciest fine dining restaurants with three Michelin stars in the Bay Area reveals that many dress codes seem to have gone by the wayside. Benu, Quince, and Manresa make no mention of dress codes on their websites. Atelier Crenn at least answers the FAQ, but in the most relaxed way possible: “Our suggested dress code is casual-elegant, jacket not required. We do however encourage dressing up for this special night.” Even the French Laundry now advises diners, “There is no dress code, please dress comfortably!” Although across various online forums, many diners conclude that they themselves would prefer to dress business casual.
At the end of the day, this is still San Francisco in the year 2021, and tech workers do love their hoodies and sneakers. To be honest, after a long year of sweatsuits at home, it can feel like a considerable effort to even put on one’s best jeans to go out to dinner. And of all the details that San Francisco diners have to plan and consider these days — getting a reservation, whether to do indoors or outdoors, whether to wear a mask, figuring out new menu QR codes, parsing new surcharges on bills — most would never even think to check for a dress code.
“People are just excited to be going out to dinner again … ” Minch says. “They’ve been very excited and understanding.” In other news, the Empress did just refresh its prix-fixe menu, which now includes XLB soup dumplings stuffed with Iberican ham and the much-vaunted crispy mini chicken in curry sauce. Catch a reservation if you can. Just don’t wear shorts.