Ryan Higginson sports a casual look while hanging at Emerald Lounge with Megan Demianiuk (left) and Jill Miller.
Ryan Higginson sports a casual look while hanging at Emerald Lounge with Megan Demianiuk (left) and Jill Miller.
Photos by Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

In Boston, where pulling on a clean Brady jersey counts as dressing up for a lot of guys, it’s no surprise that our sartorial reputation is regularly maligned. Last summer GQ magazine placed the city atop its worst-dressed list, dubbing Boston “America’s Bad-Taste Storm Sewer.” Things may be looking up, however, as this year Travel and Leisure ranked us 18th on its own worst-dressed list. Progress.

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A handful of restaurant and bar owners around the city are trying to nudge that trend in the right direction. At new night life spots like the Emerald Lounge in the Revere Hotel, as well as the upscale Gem and Empire, they’re putting their feet down when it comes to what customers are putting on their feet — and what they’re wearing.

That means no sneakers or work boots at Emerald, especially on weekends when the doormen are extra strict. And no T-shirts, “sporting clothes,” hats, torn or oversize clothing either, they say. Similar guidelines have been set at Gem, Empire, and Red Lantern, all owned by Big Night Entertainment. At Gem, they suggest “stylish, upscale attire,” while at Empire “business casual is used as minimal attire guidelines. Shorts and athletic wear are not permitted.”

None of this should come as a shock to people who frequent dance clubs, such as Royale, which boasts a dress code on certain nights of the week (but not for concerts, and definitely not for the bikini-clad go-go dancers), or some of the city’s tonier restaurants.

And yet, some of the city’s venerable old dining institutions have moved to relax their dress codes in recent years, whether as a concession to more casual social mores, or simply as a means to stay competitive. Locke-Ober, for example, still prohibits shorts, flip-flops, and ripped jeans, but the jacket and tie requirement is a thing of the past.

L’Espalier relaxed its dress code when it moved to its new location a few years ago. The policy suggests a jacket for men, but it’s not enforced. The change was about “keeping up with the times, following society,” L’Espalier’s maitre d’ Louis Risoli said. That can be a good thing. “Restaurants are probably friendlier places than they once were.”

In some cases, maybe too friendly, say observers.

“I think that in general the bars in Boston, prior to these new places, in my opinion, have kind of catered to two different extreme markets and nothing in between,” said Christina K. Pierce, owner of a boutique fashion agency and showroom on Newbury Street that shares her name. “There’s a bunch of places for drunk college kids, and on that same note, sports people, maybe out after the game out in Red Sox gear, and then there are these older, stuffier, nice places, maybe like the Bristol Lounge or a lot of hotel bars. There’s nothing in between catering to young professionals.”

Places like Emerald and Empire aim to split the difference, but it’s not so easy teaching the old town new tricks. Both spots have had to tweak their standards a bit since opening (Emerald now tones down the dress code on weeknights).

Still, even if it’s difficult at first, encouraging guests — particularly men — to dress it up a bit is worth it, says Ed Kane, one of the owners of Big Night Entertainment.

“The philosophy of what we’re trying to say is that we built these restaurants to appeal to the 28- to 45-year-old female market who tend to dress up for each other, and love to go out. We’re trying to see if the guys can step it up a little bit.”

They’ve gotten plenty of feedback, both positive and negative, he says, but his response has been firm. “There are tons of places to go for people who don’t want to get dressed up. . . . You just wouldn’t go to Four Seasons Bristol Lounge in tank top and flip-flops,” he says. (Although you could go in jeans and sneakers if you like, they said when we asked.)

“There’s a certain level of appropriateness that we’re looking for, to create more of a positive experience for everyone,” Kane said. “We’re a restaurant trying to create an attractive environment, we spend time on décor and ambience, and dress is important to us. Sports attire just undermines what we’re trying to do.”

Sean Donovan, a fashion blogger behind the Boston Moments blog, agrees that the push to get men to step it up is long overdue.

“I think that dress codes are expected in most major cities — why expectations have been so low for Boston is beyond me,” he says.

Naturally, there are plenty of patrons who don’t think what they’re wearing should make a difference.

One of them, Eric Marcelino, a DJ and night life promoter behind the popular Throwed! dance night at the Middle East, says he won’t be going back to Red Lantern after his friend was turned away for wearing a sleeveless shirt.

“I told them at the front desk that no restaurants in Boston have dress codes,” he said, adding that the Top of the Hub let them in wearing tank tops recently. “We were all insulted. This is Boston, land of rich college students galore from all over the globe. You never know whose daddy owns a Fortune 500 company, or an oil company overseas, or in our case, a few local DJs with a 40,000-person [Facebook] page. It 100 percent turned us away from ever coming back.”

Regardless, the new venues say they will continue to make an effort to improve the city’s style quotient.

“Dressing up to go out or the ‘dress to impress’ mentality has become something of a lost art that we want to bring back,” said Aggelos Panagopoulos, general manager at Emerald Lounge. “We believe this approach will differentiate us from other night life venues in the city. It certainly helps to combat that ‘worst-dressed city in America’ title.”