What bartenders wear is, more often than not, an afterthought. Plenty of contemporary establishments might have a staff dress code; something like black T-shirts or dark blue jeans with plaid button-ups. But the bars in which staff are required to show up for set-up, soldier-like, well-pressed and polished in the official uniform of their order, are harder to find.
It should come as no surprise that the majority of bars which still take pride in their bartenders’ uniforms are reasonably high-end old-guard establishments, often places founded in the first part of the last century—in some cases even earlier than that—and usually attached to some larger concern like a hotel or restaurant.
What London’s American Bar at the Savoy Hotel, Arnaud’s French 75 Bar in New Orleans and Musso & Frank Grill in Los Angeles seek to accomplish with a well-turned out staff in uniform is manifold: greater staff loyalty and camaraderie, a more polished presentation for the customer, an air of professionalism, a sartorial ambience to match elegant furniture and fixtures and, in most cases, a feeling that cannot simply be bought.
Here, the details on the uniforms worn behind the bars at these three iconic establishments.
The American Bar at the Savoy Hotel, London
The classic uniform of the bartender is a holdover from the 19th century, when people got much of their daily alcohol from patent medicines and tonic wines, and the lines between a druggist and a drink-slinger were a bit blurred (appropriately enough). Hence, early bartenders often wore single-breasted white cotton or linen jackets without lapels—the sort of thing that a doctor, butcher or other professional liable to get blood on themselves would wear.
The American Bar’s official adoption and adaptation of the white jacket can be traced to Harry Craddock, the famous Prohibition-era head bartender. According to the Savoy’s archivist, Susan Scott, Craddock’s predecessors at the American Bar were two women: Ada Coleman and Laura Burgess, neither of whom wore an official uniform but presumably the appropriate dress of Edwardian women of their station.
When Craddock took over in 1926, he introduced the original uniform: a short white jacket without lapel, collar or tails. The jacket had a high V-neck closure and a large cutaway at the bottom. Unusually, the jacket’s buttons were hidden, either by a covered placket or by using press-studs on the inside. The jackets were worn with dark trousers and a black tie with a white shirt—originally with high, stiff removable celluloid collars. Craddock himself wore a linen waiter’s apron underneath his white jacket.
According to Scott, The American Bar’s adoption of the uniform coincided with its 1920s reinvention, which included an embrace of art deco style meant to appeal to London’s young post-WWI generation of “Bright Young People.” The short dinner jackets were a cool detail for the first generation to eschew tailcoats in favor of tuxedos when going out on the town.
The uniform has seen many revisions since then, often changing with the fashions of the day. Although the basic white jacket/black tie/dark trouser combination has been a constant, significant deviations include a semi-Nehru or Mandarin-collar jacket worn in the 1970s. From the mid-1980s, head bartender Peter Dorelli wore a low-buttoning double-breasted peaked lapel jacket a la Bryan Ferry, while his successor, Salim Khoury, opted for a single-breasted jacket—although still with peak lapels.
Arnaud’s French 75 Bar, New Orleans
Attached to the venerable Arnaud’s restaurant (est. 1918), French 75 Bar also mandates their own take on the white uniform jacket. Unfortunately, Arnaud’s has no affiliated laundry, and—according to bartender Alexandria Bowler—each bartender’s duty to keep their two or three white jackets clean is a labor of love involving bleach, OxiClean and hot water (with a few Clorox gel pens behind the bar for emergencies).
As befits an establishment that seamlessly blends the New Orleans love of tradition with the city’s passion for individualism, bartenders are allowed to subtly add personal touches to the uniform: a pair of favorite cufflinks, a lapel pin, etc. According to Bowler, most of the bartenders eschew the restaurant’s standard-issue pre-tied clip-on bow tie, preferring to self-tie their own black satin bows.
The current uniform dates to 1978, when the restaurant was bought by the Casbarian family and remodeled in such a way as to deliberately evoke its 1920s heyday. The restoration was lauded as a grand success, and one key element were the jackets, designed by Mrs. Jane Casbarian, who was inspired in her design by trips to Mexico and especially London (perhaps to the Savoy’s American Bar?). Uniform jackets previous to the Casbarian-era were also white, including a high-buttoning double-breasted version with a low and open stand-collar, like a chef’s jacket, seen in photos from the 1950s. There are even rumors of there once having been a tailcoat uniform, though with little conclusive evidence.
Musso & Frank Grill, Los Angeles
Opened in 1919, the initial aim of Joseph Musso and Frank Toulet was to bring a fine European dining experience to Hollywood, and one of the elements they immediately introduced was—you guessed it—formal white dinner jackets for servers and bartenders alike.
In the late 1940s, when Hollywood had long since confirmed its supremacy as the world capital of entertainment, the restaurant and bar underwent a restoration. As seen in both of the previous examples, renovations of an establishment were almost always considered an opportunity to update the uniforms as well. According to COO, CFO and proprietor, Mark Echeverria, around the time when Musso & Frank tore out their old green leather banquettes and reupholstered the whole restaurant’s seating in red leather, they switched their uniforms to red to match. They’ve been the same ever since.
The uniform’s calling card is a short, single breasted mess-style red jacket with square bottoms and three closely-spaced black fabric-covered buttons. Bartenders and servers both wear the jackets with black pants and white shirts, but are differentiated by black neckties and bow ties, respectively.
Some of the longer-serving members, including the longest-tenured bartender, Ruben Rueda, have subtly customized their uniforms by having their initials embroidered onto the cuff of the jacket. Next year, in honor of the centennial, a commemorative lapel pin will also be added to the uniform.
Illustrations by Nick Hensley-Wagner.