More than 200 years ago, the French lawyer and food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously wrote, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” Today, it’s probably more accurate to say: “Tell me what you wear, and I will tell you where you eat.”
Like band shirts for music fans, restaurant T-shirts have become the apparel of choice for food lovers and the fashion-minded alike. Bold in design, colour and conception, the shirts are part of a rapidly growing “food-merch” trend in which anything and everything in the food universe is open to pop-culture interpretation. Free of culinary come-ons and corporate branding, restaurant tees are the new streetwear for the foodie set.
Evidence of the food-merch phenomenon ranges from haute-cuisine haughtiness to fast-food kitsch. Last year, New York’s old-school Italian restaurant Carbone partnered with fashion brand KITH for a collection of designer T-shirts, while GQ prominently featured a layout showcasing tees from Mission Chinese Food, a restaurant with locations in San Francisco and New York. Even KFC released apparel in the past year, garnering praise from Esquire for a bright yellow sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “Fried Chicken USA” in black block letters.
Here in Canada, the most popular restaurant T-shirts are the result of a partnership between Montreal’s Joe Beef restaurant chain and local illustrator Benoit Tardif. Joe Beef co-owner David McMillan discovered Tardif’s work on Instagram and asked him to design a T-shirt for Le Vin Papillon, Joe Beef’s wine-bar offshoot. The resulting shirt features large illustrations of vegetables interspersed with people pouring and drinking wine – all evocative of the kind of evening you might enjoy at the restaurant.
“David gave me a lot of liberty and told me to have fun,” says Tardif, who has also designed unique T-shirts for Joe Beef and the Montreal restaurants Liverpool House and Mon Lapin.
Wearing a T-shirt extolling the virtues of a fabulous but perhaps little-known restaurant is, of course, a foodie statement of the highest order. Beyond providing a cool cachet and insider vibe on one’s home turf, the shirt can serve as a conversation starter in far-off places. “It’s a signifier around the world,” Toronto wine importer Nicole Campbell says. “I’ve worn my Vin Papillon shirt at wine bars in Los Angeles and Barcelona and been greeted warmly by strangers in Québécois French.”
And just as a Metallica T-shirt identifies its owner as a proud lover of loud music, a restaurant tee instantly reveals the wearer to be an experienced diner who may be open to a new food experience. “When we see someone in a Vin Papillon shirt, we know they’re diners, we know they’re people who love to eat,” says Kim Montgomery-Rawlings, co-owner of Toronto’s Montgomery’s restaurant. “You can have a discourse and read them in terms of things they may be interested in eating or drinking.”
In keeping with the times, Montgomery’s recently began selling its own shirt, which boasts an illustration of the Montgomery family crest: a woman holding an anchor in one hand and a severed head in the other. While not particularly appetizing, the shirt is at least in keeping with historical record.
“Legend has it that the Montgomery clan had to go fight in a battle and another marauding village came to attack,” says Montgomery-Rawlings, “but the women who were left behind defended themselves. So they say the strength is in the women, and that’s why that image is what it is.”
On the other side of the country, Vancouver chef and social activist Mark Brand has a different approach to the food-merch trend. His popular diner, Save On Meats, is also home to a commissary kitchen providing 1,200 meals daily for marginalized residents, in addition to a token program enabling generous patrons to donate a meal to those in need. The diner also sells red baseball hats with a white crest on them and Brand recently took a box of them along on a recent bus tour to the United States with fellow activists.
“My mission on this trip is to see how many I can trade for MAGA [Make America Great Again] hats,” said Brand prior to embarking on the two-week trip. “I’m going to try and have the conversation and say, ‘Can I give you a real community support hat in exchange for that?’”
Far removed from the era when Hard Rock Café T-shirts were considered a fashion statement, the current appeal of restaurant T-shirts connects directly to the fact most are designed to focus on interesting artwork or meaningful messages. Restaurant owners say the tees tend to be most popular with diners in their 20s and 30s, whether they are local customers or visitors from abroad. And the shirts are especially popular with fellow food-industry workers.
“Other cooks and chefs in the city immediately wanted our shirt and that kind of support is so heartwarming,” says Montgomery-Rawlings. “If someone is willing to wear the shirt, that means they believe in the vision, that they come out to eat regularly. We buy the shirts of our friends’ businesses, too, and we wear their shirts with pride.”
And perhaps we should all be appreciative for a fashion trend that, for once, doesn’t rely on crass commercialism and branding. In some instances, the name of the restaurant doesn’t even appear on the T-shirt, replaced instead with a visual logo that usually leads people to ask where the shirt is from. That’s a big part of the draw for William Roman, general manager at Niagara’s Rosewood Estates Winery, who says restaurant T-shirts have replaced the punk-rock shirts of his youth.
“It’s the same thing, it’s a band shirt mentality,” says Roman. “I’d rather wear a shirt that is done by someone I know cooking in a kitchen – or making the beer, or making the wine – than any clothing brand. The only brands you see me wearing are people that I love.”