Scent-Free Dining

Dear Helena,

I sat next to this guy at dinner last night who was drenched in Drakkar Noir. I could barely eat, the smell was grossing me out so much. Is it bad manners to wear heavy cologne or perfume at a restaurant? —Scent Mental

Dear Scent Mental,

A lot of diners are perfume-phobic, including Chowhounds, as you can see on this discussion and this one. Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, has actually gone so far as to suggest banning perfume in restaurants.

Smell, of course, is intimately connected to taste. Randi Leehan, wine buyer and general manager at LA wine bar BottleRock, says that even soaps and detergents can compromise the ability to appreciate a wine. “I need to cleanse my nose like you cleanse your palate—just walk outside and take a breath of fresh air before I can taste the wine. … Musk is the worst because it stays with you the longest and it’s so strong.”

Even if you can no longer smell your fragrance (one’s nose adjusts to most smells after about 15 minutes), other people probably can. If someone has sensitive nostrils, your scent could ruin his dinner. In a restaurant Leehan used to work in, several customers complained about a busser’s hair gel. “They could smell it on his hands when he was pulling the plates away.”

Get over it, some would say. According to Yosh Han, a San Francisco–based perfumer, people wouldn’t dream of complaining about fragrances in Europe. And of the 50 states, California is especially bad. “Californians are quite clean-obsessed and overboard about scents in general,” she says.

On the other hand, the scent du jour is more pungent than in the past. Modern perfumes use synthetic musk, which may be a greater irritant than the natural substance. And a potent ingredient called oud or agarwood is coming into vogue. “People who don’t understand oud think it smells like stinky feet or cheese. … If you don’t get good-quality oud, it has a funky smell,” says Han.

But if you’re the type of person who doesn’t feel fully dressed without a spritz of perfume, you don’t have to forgo it altogether. Application is key. “Most people spray it in a Zorro pattern all over themselves. I tell them to spray away at arm’s distance and then walk into it,” says Han. This, she explains, is the perfume equivalent of a “light cashmere scarf” rather than a “wool coat, hat, and gloves.”

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.