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Back page: Many Are Casual, Few Are Elegant

Jack Smith

Most of the time, says interior designer Michael Booth, a co-owner of design firm Babey Moulton Jue & Booth, he enjoys the crisp staccato sound of footsteps that echoes across the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel Boston. It is the percussive signal of stiletto heels and pumps and wingtips and Gucci loafers moving across the polished granite floor. “You can tell without looking up that people are dressed to be here,” he says.

But every now and then that sound fades into the shuffle of sneakers, beach sandals, or shower clogs moving by, and it sends a chill up the designer’s spine. “It’s the Duck Boat people,” says Booth, referring to the tourists who, attired in shorts, tank tops, and T-shirts during the warm weather, frequent the big amphibious sightseeing vehicles that cruise the city and the Charles River basin. He holds his breath as they move toward Aujourd’hui, the restaurant that Booth recently transformed into the hotel’s signature space. Here, the bar evokes a private library, with deep mahogany paneling and walls painted in celadon blue. The dining room is set with fresh-cut flowers on snowy damask and hung with watercolors of Boston’s Public Garden interspersed with black-and-white still lifes in platinum frames. The most desultory glance reveals that this is neither a backyard barbecue nor a sports bar. So why, Booth asks in exasperation, do some people arrive dressed as if it were?

This state of affairs will surprise no one who recalls the March 2001 Robb Report column titled “Corporate Casual,” which reported, “Elegant restaurants that once required coats and ties are now forced to specify ‘smart casual,’ an oxymoron if ever there was one, and a likely first step toward the fall of civilization, or at the very least, a decline in [our] appetite.” Because nobody yet has been able to define “smart casual,” Aujourd’hui, like so many other upscale boîtes, has adopted as its new sartorial standard “casual elegant,” a term that presupposes gradations of elegant, from “everyday elegant” to “special-occasion elegant.”

It is difficult to identify the origin of this passion for dressing down. Throughout most of human history, men and women have instinctively wanted to look their best. This is especially so when attending or hosting a party or when gathering to dine on such fare as described in this issue’s Host Guide feature “Perfect Pairings” (page 244).

Some will contend that only an effete snob would concern himself with the way the other guests in a restaurant are dressed, but a memorable scene from an episode of The Sopranos contradicts this notion. While visiting a friend’s restaurant, Tony Soprano commands a guest seated nearby to take off his baseball cap. At first—in the manner of feckless restaurant-goers everywhere—the other man refuses. It is his cap, he says, and he will wear it wherever he wants. But then, sizing up the hulking mobster looming over his table, Mr. Casual meekly removes the offending chapeau.

While it is gratifying to see bad manners rewarded with the threat of mayhem, the last thing anyone wants is to walk into a restaurant full of fashion vigilantes monitoring the cut of your blazer or demanding that you set off your tie with a color-coordinated pocket foulard. Therefore, the best course of action when seated next to a table of sartorial bottom-feeders is to set a good example. You might offer a nod, a smile, or even a pleasantry to the offending parties.

No one will fault you, though, if on your way out of the restaurant you ask, “Say, how was that Duck Boat anyway?”

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