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“I carry a Tide to Go stick at all times,” a server at Austin’s Emmer & Rye explains when asked how he keeps his white shirt and apron so pristine. “Actually, I’ve used it twice today, but this is still my favorite uniform.” Compared to other places this server has worked, he likes the comfort and creativity that comes with being able to choose his own white shirt and earth-tone shoes, per the chef/owner’s instructions, and feels professional in his uniform that varies ever so slightly from the corresponding restaurant staff. He’s ready for work, he looks the part, and is just another part of the ever-evolving runway show that dining out has become.
When it comes to restaurants, there’s much more to the design than what’s on the plate. The music, dishware, furniture, and artwork all set the ambiance, but another increasingly important aspect to creating a restaurant is the way the staff is outfitted. Restaurateurs are dressing their servers, bussers, hosts, and sommeliers in everything from off-the-rack designer uniforms to custom fashion collaborations (like ramen restaurant Ippudo’s much-adored collab with Engineered Garments) to vintage finds, all choices that communicate the essence of the restaurant from the moment you’re greeted at the door. In this era when everyone is a fashion — and food — expert, the traditional black and white servers’ uniform is gone.
Here’s a look into what goes into dressing a restaurant’s staff:
Walk into Nix just south of New York City’s Union Square and you’ll be whisked not into another time, but another dimension. Inside the new and highly sought-after meat-free restaurant, life is serene, calm, and completely dissimilar from the bustling streets outside.
Nix, the type of very cool, slightly older friend who you just can’t spend enough time with, dresses its employees in custom outfits by Paul Marlow, a former Marc Jacobs designer and friend of Nix co-owner James Truman. Inspired by vintage Japanese artists smocks, servers uniform up in a blue ikat fabric for winter and a custom tomato-red floral pattern for summer. Sommelier Andrea Morris pours wines to each table in her own set of custom Paul Marlow dresses, and hostesses greet guests in a special collection of vintage dresses.
“Restaurant uniforms, like military uniforms, tend to be very male in their conception, as the profession was one traditionally populated entirely by men,” Truman said. “It seemed absurd to us that in the 21st century, the customary outfit for a woman working in a restaurant imitates that of a man — trousers, shirt, often a tie, sometimes a vest.” Hoping for Nix to be embraced by women, Truman wanted to communicate that his restaurant wasn’t upholding archaic gender divides. He describes the uniforms as “practical but chic.” Three-quarter length sleeves can be gathered above the elbows, which enables serving food; a patch pocket below the waist holds pens and order pads, and an open-tied back makes the uniform a lot more comfortable than a traditional bistro apron.
“Serving tables can be strenuous work, so we strived to achieve something that looks good and feels good,” Truman said. Because Nix is completely vegetarian, Truman also wanted to stray away from the recent trope of dressing every restaurant employee in butcher’s aprons, which are often adorned with leather straps. “We wanted to strike the opposite note, something lighter and more feminine, which didn’t bring it with the association of butchering animals.” Maybe that’s why the aura at Nix is so pleasant.
Emmer & Rye
At Austin’s Emmer & Rye, servers wheel dim sum carts through the dining room presenting the day’s selection of small plates while workers bustle in the kitchen, all in white T-shirts, a unique choice for a workplace known for its countless spills and stain opportunities. The white shirt corresponds to the calmness of the open kitchen’s white subway tile and the restaurant’s overall pale hues, especially soothing during chaotic dinner service.
“When we first opened the restaurant, we spent hours on Pinterest looking at restaurant uniforms,” said Kevin Fink, chef and co-owner of Emmer & Rye. “We wanted something simple and consistent. We also knew we wanted to use this local apron company, Savilino. White shirts and jeans seemed like a good option to fit our decor and showcase the aprons.”
The relaxed atmosphere of the restaurant — with small booths and wooden tables individually lit by minimalist black lamps and topped with a monogrammed E&R water carafe and the ceramic servingware of the restaurant’s mix-and-match menu — carries over to the uniform.
“We have no brand requirements, just style guidelines,” Fink said. “Our team has done a great job of taking something simple like a white shirt and allowing their own style to show through.”
But seasoned workers know better than to stock up on designer white tees, because food and drink stains are imminent.
“They get destroyed often!” Fink said. “Our team has gotten pretty good at scouring thrift stores to find work shirts.” While any hole-free clean and pressed shirt works for Fink, he’s not encouraging employees to stock up on five-packs of Hanes undershirts. “We ask that the shirts are presentable… Undershirts typically don’t look presentable because they are so thin, they can be see-through.” Employees do have to pay for their white shirts as part of their uniforms, but will soak them in Oxiclean or Clorox overnight to remove frequent food stains. For wine, the staff is loyal to Wine Away. To keep shirts fresh, one staff member maintains a routine of soaking white shirts in a mixture of baking soda and vinegar overnight before washing them to keep them fresh.
On a recent evening, the barback had a run-in with a bottle of Angostura bitters. “If you have ever spilled that on yourself, you know it doesn't come out,” Fink said. Luckily, another server had an extra shirt she could borrow. “It was about three sizes too big, but she rocked it.” The power of the plain white tee.
Before opening their new Brooklyn bar and restaurant, co-owners Danny Minch and Dylan Dodd traveled to Japan, where they found menu and uniform inspiration alike. "When we were in Japan on our inspiration trip, we found a really beautiful mid-century vintage jacket in a Sunday flea market in a French blue,” Dodd said. “Even though it didn’t fit well, we bought it as inspiration for color and concept.” They grew to love the idea of dressing bartenders in jackets.
Back in Brooklyn, they met with Deidre Jones, who runs Jones of Boerum Hill with her husband, Iestyn, who then created a prototype ready for the day Karasu opened. A few tweaks later (like adding darker buttons), and the uniforms were ready!
“We want guests who walk in to Karasu to feel the vibe right away — conversational level jazz, dark colors, natural wood, and a cozy atmosphere,” Dodd said. In contrast to Walter’s, Dodd’s other restaurant that’s known for its bright lights and loud music, “Karasu is gentler, quieter, and seductive… the jackets convey that contrast well.” Dodd noted that the jackets are also practical, with handy pockets and an enhanced appearance the more they are used and washed.
“The jackets also give a feeling of craftsmanship that we aspire to in everything we serve. That was something we were really inspired by during the research trip we took to Japan,” Dodd said. “We liked that the jacket is something that you would want to wear outside of work. It’s comfortable, stylish, and doesn't feel like a typical work uniform that you want to take off the second you are done.”
Part of Karasu’s charm lies in its subtle details. When a guest orders a whiskey or sake neat, the bottles are left on the bar. The menu is bound as a leather book, and the sounds of vinyl records in the background accompany the clinking of vintage glassware.
“A uniform is an important part of the overall aesthetic, and makes a statement about what you want the feel of a place to be,” Dodd said. “We want people to come in and immediately relax for a couple hours. We’re trying to offer a respite from the commotion of the big city, and the uniforms are one piece of that.”
While the menu at Boston’s Juliet is constantly changing, the uniform remains consistent. Co-owned by chef Joshua Lewin and partner Katrina Jazayeri, founder of Post Oak Aprons, the restaurant dresses its staff differently in the back and front of house — in the co-owner’s designs, of course. Front of house employees dress in gray tops and black bottoms of the wearer’s choosing with a Post Oak apron. Back of house workers, who are still part of the restaurant’s ambiance as they work in an open kitchen, dress in white chef coats with blue aprons.
“I wanted our team to have a consistent look that compliments the aesthetics of the restaurant, but it was important to allow some individuality for our team,” Jazayeri said. “We created some parameters for FOH uniform, but don't mandate a cookie-cutter uniform. I wanted to keep things open-ended so our staff is comfortable at work and feels good about how they look, while ensuring they can still be identified as part of the staff. Individuality and choice were always important to me at a job, so this is a small way to preserve individual identity within a larger group aesthetic.”
Jazayeri also went with this color palette to best complement the paint and lighting inside the restaurant. “At Juliet, we think about inviting our guests into our home, so the hosts play a role in setting that tone,” she said. “We want our staff to feel comfortable and welcome, the same way our guests do. But a uniform has a functional purpose as well, to signal to the guest who they can ask for help or talk to about the restaurant.”
Post Oak aprons are created with the user in mind, made with fabric (light, sturdy, stain-resistant, etc.) relevant to the wearer’s responsibilities. Patterns for aprons are also cut to the user’s height, and pocket placement and number are chosen “to maximize efficiency and to avoid extraneous elements.” “Some people need pen or tool pockets, others need a place for a recipe book or papers,” Jazayeri explained.
At this trendy San Antonio bar, beverage director Christopher Ware wanted a bartender uniform unique to the entire United States. “The uniform was chosen to be as utilitarian as possible while maintaining our bar’s look and feel,” Ware said. He noted that New York’s Employees Only has become iconic for its chef’s coats, and he wanted Paramour to be known for its use of aprons.
As the manager of a small company, Ware wanted to partner with small businesses to find the uniforms and sourced aprons from Sierra Valley Trading Company and local fabricator Lucio Tailoring. Under the apron, bartenders are dressed in J.Crew gingham short sleeve shirts in warmer seasons and Ralph Lauren blue oxfords when cold weather hits. While anyone could be dressed in J.Crew or Ralph Lauren, Ware said that the minimalist uniform is all part of communicating at the bar. “Each bartender's personality is meant to provide a break from the homogenous message put forth by the uniform.”
Just like the best outfits give us our strongest sense of self, the perfectly picked restaurant uniforms accentuate the personalities and characters that make restaurant service standout.