Ladies and gentlemen.
These are all phrases upscale restaurant goers are familiar with. But some businesses, including Chicago’s Tied House, a new American restaurant with a James Beard Award-winning chef, hope to change that.
The concept of gender-neutral dining is simple: help customers feel more comfortable by refraining from labeling them. For non-binary and trans diners especially, being addressed as sir or ma’am can be highly uncomfortable and jarring, which is why, as Eater recently reported, Tied House eliminated terms like “ladies and gentleman” from its vocabulary. Another thing they’ve gotten rid of? Ladies first—the entire tradition of taking orders from and serving, well, ladies first.
In a recent phone interview, Tied House’s general manager and Beverage Director Meredith Rush told us, “We lightly talked about whether this was something for the bottom of the menu, like a disclaimer you’d have for eating raw shellfish. We felt like that would draw perhaps too much attention—we didn’t want to highlight it too much. It was natural to us, so we just did it…By no means are we trying to disrespect anybody, we’re trying to respect everybody.”
Restaurateur Georgette Farkas, an advocate for female leaders in the food industry who worked as Daniel Boulud’s right-hand woman for 17 years, takes a more traditional approach to service at her New York City-based French bistro Rotisserie Georgette. “My staff is instructed to take the ladies’ order first, that’s the old-fashioned side of me,” Farkas said. But sometimes, younger patrons are oblivious and the guy will order first. “My first rule of thumb is be observant and sensitive,” Farkas explained. “If there’s a family, it’s respectful to take the order of the senior people first.”
Both Rush and Farkas emphasized that everyone has different expectations when they dine out and their staff uses discretion. That’s also the philosophy of Jacqueline Carson-Aponte, general manager at Dirt Candy in New York City. At the helm of a restaurant that eliminated tipping in 2015, Carson-Aponte thinks a lot about service—including how it intersects with gender. Although all of the plates are shared, ladies-first is a question when it comes to beverage service.
Nevertheless, she hasn’t specifically addressed gender with her staff. “They’re going to serve what’s more comfortable for guests—whether that happens to be the man, woman or older gentleman at the table,” Carson-Aponte said. “I have a pretty young staff, so I don’t think they think about it in terms of ladies first or not. Neutral service happens pretty naturally and organically.”
Rush echoed that even though she had a conversation with her staff, her goal was to let gender-neutral service happen as naturally as possible. “At the end and beginning and middle of the day it’s all about hospitability.” And of course, really good food.