Not by bread alone

Fashion: Ordinary uniforms for the wait staff won't cut it anymore, so restaurants -- and hotels -- are moving toward high style looks for their personnel.

March 24, 2002|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

NEW YORK -- When Rocco DiSpirito first opened his upscale restaurant near Gramercy Park, he thought everything was perfect.

Union Pacific's menu offered Western dishes infused with Asian flavor. Fusion jazz played softly throughout the night, adding a sensual energy to the dining room. And the decor was sleek, warm and inviting, with tranquil touches like a waterfall cascading into a mod lotus pond.

Yet, years after his restaurant's 1997 opening, DiSpirito still battled a nagging feeling that something wasn't quite right.

So he finally hired an expert to solve the problem -- a fashion stylist.

"What we're trying to do here is build a restaurant that delivers a world-class food and wine experience without the pretension that you often get with that experience," said DiSpirito, who moonlights as a celebrity chef on Food Network, where he is the host of Melting Pot. "But soon after we opened, we knew that our servers' black-and-white look didn't fit into that framework. It was cool, but it was conservative, and the black and white was very much a stark contrast to the room, where all the colors and textures are warm."

DiSpirito isn't the only restaurateur -- or hospitality industry entrepreneur -- worrying about fashion these days. More Americans today are savvy about eating out and traveling, and new restaurants and hotels are competing for leisure dollars. In response, hospitality businesses increasingly have had to turn to high fashion as a way to set themselves apart and reel in customers.

Bond Street, a tres fashionable Japanese restaurant in Greenwich Village, worked with Calvin Klein and Hugo Boss on waiters' uniforms and recently commissioned a designer to create slinky cocktail dresses for its female servers. And Town, a posh Midtown establishment, received personal assistance from designer Roberto Cavalli when picking dress shirts for its wait staff.

Even hotels are getting in on high glamour. The W Hotel chain recently launched a new look for its lobby staff -- snazzy gray pinstripe suits specially designed by Kenneth Cole. And the trend is prevalent in cities across the country, said Tom Foulkes, spokesman for the National Restaurant Association.

The driving force behind this nouveau style-consciousness is competition.

"The industry as a whole is becoming more and more competitive, and many restaurants and many types of cuisines have become more available to the major population centers as well as smaller communities," Foulkes said. "To use decoration and fashion and a different setting gives the restaurant the best opportunity to differentiate itself from competitors by creating a distinctive and unique experience."

DiSpirito said this was the main reason he ended up working with Sarah Shirley -- a film costume designer and stylist who has dressed MTV's Carson Daly -- to create the right look for his servers. In 1999, he said, new restaurants that opened up within a five-block radius of Union Pacific added 1,000 dining seats to the area.

"The best food on the planet will never make a restaurant experience a whole experience," DiSpirito said. "Not everyone comes to restaurants for food only. People come to restaurants to celebrate birthdays, to close a business deal, have a first date, get engaged, and 10 percent come because they hear the food is great. Most people come because they hear the restaurant's great."

These days, DiSpirito is feeling much better about his servers' look -- burnt-orange dress shirts, deep-cocoa pants and an assortment of ivory, orange and red Brooks Brothers ties in various patterns. Shirley said she picked the colors to complement the warm, reddish-brown tones that comfort diners at Union Pacific.

The servers' pants and shirts are from Banana Republic, but Shirley and DiSpirito worked with designers from Calvin Klein, Kenneth Cole, Ermenegildo Zegna and Joseph Abboud on concepts before making their final decision. Shirley currently is working on selecting suits for the restaurant's managers and dresses for the hostesses.

Some restaurants say they have had to turn to fashion to remain relevant to their stylish diners.

"Our clients are very aware of their own fashion and looks," said Steven Durbahn, general manager at Bond Street, a dining hotbed for models and celebs. "When they go out, they want a place that's also concerned with that. Also, with Japanese food, we thought it would detract from the experience if our people weren't sleek and sexy or presented as well as the food that we have."

To further enforce the necessary trendiness, Durbahn has strict instructions that wait staff may not place any bulky objects in their pockets to affect their outfits' slim silhouette. He also bars female servers from wearing conspicuous jewelry.

These entrepreneurs' efforts aren't for naught. Through image management, some have managed to cultivate a loyal following that identifies with the looks they see at hotels and restaurants.

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