FEW COLUMNS - not even the one about albino groundhogs - sparked as much reader reaction as last Wednesday's tale of Philadelphian Bruce Fulmer's treatment in a fine Little Italy restaurant because of his attire. Fulmer wore red sweat pants, a gray pocket T-shirt and a pair of loafers when he entered Rocco's Capriccio for dinner Saturday evening. He was seated alone in an upstairs dining room, away from other diners. He perceived this as a slight and beefed about it.
I figured a lot of people would empathize. We've become such a casual society - men don't necessarily feel a need to wear neckties to funerals; tourist attire is ubiquitous; people speak loudly into cell phones in all sorts of public settings - that I didn't think anyone cared about restaurant dress codes and social standards anymore. Even Martha Stewart wears T-shirts.
But this story - Fulmer's beef - touched sensitive nerves.
The majority of readers expressed outrage that a man in Fulmer's attire would even consider going into an upscale restaurant.
"The attire you described is not casual. It is slovenly," wrote Frederick J. Koenig of Aberdeen.
"Not wanting to wear a sport coat is fine, no matter your weight and size," wrote Jane Ballentine. "After all, this is Baltimore and the heat and humidity can be overwhelming. But SWEATPANTS? Come on. Even a pair of jeans or khaki shorts would be more appropriate. SWEATPANTS? Ugh. Might just as well have on a tank top, too."
"I think sweat pants and no socks are way, way below the threshold of presentability, not merely 'caj' but 'common as pig tracks,' as my mother used to say," wrote Doug Connah.
To be fair, Fulmer wore socks. But even that was a faux pas, according to the fashion police among us.
"The restaurant shouldn't have treated the man that way," said a reader in Timonium. "But please! No large man should wear anything red, especially sweat pants. And he shouldn't wear loafers. The only acceptable footwear is Rockport moccasins and only if you're walking down the driveway to get the morning newspaper, or walking the dog or going to 7-Eleven. And you should never wear socks with them!"
Several readers agreed with me that, if Fulmer's attire was inappropriate, he should have been sent to a more casual Italian restaurant instead of seated in an isolated spot in an upstairs room. (As they say at the Olive Garden, "When you're here, you're family," and they have to take you in, even if you're wearing sweats.)
"But let me relate this from a diner's perspective," wrote Jim Waurin. "Two weeks ago, my family was celebrating three graduations. A posh establishment in Little Italy was my wife's choice for dinner. I called to make reservations, and inquire about the dress code. I was told, 'Jacket and tie preferred, business casual accepted.' So all eight of us get dressed in our finest summer jackets, ties and dresses, head down in the heat, and get seated fairly readily. (Peter Angelos and William Donald Schaefer were two tables away from us.) As we sat there, we noticed that there was no dress code at all; it ranged from suit and tie, to the tourist couple in shorts and polos with baby in tow.
"My point: If you want to run a classy restaurant, stick to the rules about what people wear! This whole casualization of America is going to be the downfall of decorum in this country. Because nobody knows how to dress, nobody knows how to act. ... And because nobody knows how to act, every event becomes just a gathering of people doing their own thing, without any respect for the other people there."
Thomas Mitchell, who said he works with a private business club in Washington, agreed that restaurant dress codes are tricky. "The important rule is to be consistent," he said. "The case you mention, in my opinion, was handled properly. Turning someone away, as you suggest, is absolutely the last thing you want to do. Accommodating them in a discreet location is a better option. What if [Fulmer] sat in the main area, and the table next to him was celebrating a special occasion? A guy in sweats and a T-shirt at the next table, or even across the room is likely to impact other customers' dining experience."
But Roland M. Keh, the chef-owner of a casual eatery in Little Italy, doesn't think dress codes go with Italian food. "I am a native of Little Italy who has worked for many years in restaurants in Little Italy," he wrote. "I have witnessed the negative treatment of customers wearing short pants, T-shirts and flip-flop shoes. It is a shame to see a customer feel inferior due to his attire.
"Italian food is all about comfort! No one should be dressed so well so that he can't enjoy a huge plate of linguini with marinara sauce. ... When it came time for us to open our own restaurant, there was no doubt as to our mission: Be casual and welcome everyone. What you put on the plate is more important than what you put on your back. Twirling pasta around a fork should be fun. Let's not make this more complex than it is. So, to all my fellow Little Italy restaurant neighbors, I say, 'Lighten up!' Visitors to Baltimore are not always dressed for the symphony. Welcome the baseball caps, the sandals, the Bermuda shorts, the tie-dyed shirts and the strollers. The future of your business depends on it!"
John Snyder, a Philadelphia native who lives in Howard County, hit on something I hadn't considered - that, coming from Philadelphia, Fulmer might not have appreciated our local standards.
"Baltimore seems a lot like Philly, but they are two different places," Snyder said. "I like Baltimore, the way people take it seriously. It's not like Philly, where we pick on ourselves all the time. I think Baltimore has a nicer way of dressing down when dressing up. A guy who travels 100 miles and thinks that loafers with sweats is a good thing to wear in public is really dissing Baltimore. He should think of honoring his host by wearing maybe sneakers and a warm-up suit. A clean warm-up suit, one with a working zipper and some audible zest as he walks in it."