Gender Bending in Restaurant Restrooms

Dear Helena,
When I go to the bathroom in a restaurant, there’s often a line. God knows what other women do in there. I can do my business, wash my hands, and refresh my lip gloss in two minutes or less. Anyway, if there’s no line for the men’s, and I’m desperate, I’ll duck in there instead. Is that OK?
—Squirming in Line

Dear Squirming in Line,
I don’t recommend barging in on a line of guys at the urinal, but if the men’s room is an individual bathroom and there’s no one waiting, it’s fine to take advantage. Marcia Gagliardi, creator of San Francisco’s Tablehopper newsletter and frequent restaurant-goer, isn’t squeamish about using the men’s room in such situations. But if a guy is waiting when she comes out, he sometimes isn’t happy. “I’ve had a few dismissive looks; I’ve even had one guy make a comment like, ‘Couldn’t wait in line, huh?’”

Sorry, guys, but a gentleman doesn’t complain if he has to wait a couple of minutes. It’s a woman’s right to use the men’s room when the women’s is too busy. Consider it one of the few little privileges we enjoy to make up for the many inequalities we suffer.

But there’s a simple way for restaurant owners to nip the bathroom inequality problem in the bud: Make the facilities unisex. Let me stress that such bathrooms should be individual units, each one with its own sink and mirror. I’m not a fan of unisex stalls with a communal sink area. This arrangement was trendy at Manhattan hot spots about five years ago, says Adam Farmerie, cofounder of AvroKO, a New York design firm best known for its work on restaurants.

“[Bathrooms] are one of the only elements where [a designer has] an opportunity to surprise,” says Farmerie. The unisex bathroom was particularly appealing in Manhattan because it saved space. And, in theory, sharing this intimate space with the opposite sex provided a pleasurable frisson.

In reality, few people find coed lavatories sexy, particularly not women. Gagliardi says, “I’d be willing to bet they are designed by men. ... Women like to put their lipstick on, check their teeth and hair, and they don’t want to do it in front of guys.”

Happily, the unisex bathroom became so ubiquitous that it was no longer risqué, and designers now have to think of new ways to surprise customers. One way, says Farmerie, is to put in “things that don’t belong there, like chairs and armoires.” He put an armoire in the bathroom of one restaurant he designed recently. “People can open the drawers and there’s a plethora of things, like mouthwash, temporary tattoos, and small religious statues.” It’s like the restaurant version of snooping in your host’s medicine cabinet.

At Peep in New York, the bathroom has a partially transparent wall, so that occupants can look out into the restaurant while remaining invisible. And at the San Francisco restaurant Conduit, Gagliardi says, “The stalls have opaque glass but you can vaguely see a figure in the stall next to you.” I used to be a member of a gym where the shower stalls displayed the silhouettes of those within. That was quite sexy. But watching a stranger lather himself with soap is one thing, and watching him reach for the toilet paper is another.

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