Yesha Callahan was waiting for her friend Brian Gordon to join her at the popular Washington restaurant El Centro D.F. It was the Saturday before Christmas, another friend of Callahan's was tending bar, and it was around 10:30 at night, the point in the evening when the restaurant gives way to a nightclub and the music is turned up. Only a handful of people were there. There was no one in line.
But Gordon was denied entry, he says he was told, because he was wearing sneakers, which the restaurant's dress code prohibits.
His shoes were leather Converse high tops. "They're not like ratty, dirty sneakers," said Gordon. "They're brand new, they're leather. They were clean, fresh, white. It's not like I showed up in five-year-old Chucks."
Downstairs, Callahan's group of friends got a text from Gordon, who is black, telling them he was turned away because of his shoes. Callahan looked over at the bar as a group of white men walked in and noticed what they were wearing. "They all have sneakers on," said Callahan. "One guy had the same sneakers style that (Gordon) had."
Gordon said he doesn't take issue with the concept of a no-sneakers policy, "but if it's not being applied universally, then it's a problem." Besides, Callahan said, El Centro is a relatively casual spot. "If I'm going to a taco joint, why does it matter if I have sneakers on or not?" she said.
The policy was being used to discriminate against people of color, Callahan alleged in a widely shared story about the experience she wrote for the Root, where she is the deputy managing editor. In response, Ayyaz Rashid, managing partner of the Sandoval Restaurant Group, removed the sneaker policy on Tuesday and fired the bouncer who interacted with Gordon. Rashid said that celebrity chef Richard Sandoval, who was traveling, was made aware of the situation, and has "zero tolerance for anything discriminatory." And this week, "We are making sure that in all our venues, we are doing extra training to discuss this issue, to make sure [staff] understand what is right, what is not right."
Allegations of sneakers-based discrimination appear to have been an issue at El Centro for years, according to reviews on Yelp. "My husband was not allowed in because he was wearing sneakers," a review from 2015 read. "While I respect an establishment's dress code, what I could not understand was why the next white male in line wearing sneakers (and several others) was allowed to enter the restaurant. After we challenged this decision, the bouncer tried to act like 'it was not his call;' to which my husband replied, 'Why does this other guy get to go in? Is it because he's not black?' "
Rashid said that the dress code policy was "no different than any D.C., L.A. or New York lounge," and that when guests saw other guests who weren't dressed according to the code, it was usually because the underdressed guests were dining in the restaurant, which has no dress code, and stuck around for the nightclub portion of the night, when the dress code is instituted. He says he has fired bouncers in the past for not following restaurant policies, including the application of the dress code.
"I am a person of color myself," said Rashid. "So to hear that I would be enforcing such policies, it's pretty personal to me."
While there have been several one-star Yelp reviews added since Callahan's article. the page has so far evaded a total Yelp bombing and "active cleanup alert," a notice Yelp issues for a restaurant when it receives many negative reviews because of news coverage.
El Centro is far from the first restaurant to be accused of using a dress code to deny entry to people of color. In 2015, the Justice Department intervened after a black man complained to the Dallas City Council that he was turned away from Kung Fu Saloon for wearing Converse sneakers while his white friend, who was wearing the same sneakers, was allowed in. According to the DOJ, "The terms of the decree require the defendants to comply with federal law by not discriminating against patrons on the basis of race, color or national origin; to post and enforce a non-discriminatory dress code policy; to implement a system for receiving and investigating complaints of discrimination; and to conduct monitoring to ensure that Kung Fu Saloon's employees are acting in a non-discriminatory manner consistent with federal law," reported the Dallas Morning News. Bars in Chicago; Minneapolis; Raleigh, North Carolina; Houston; Athens, Georgia; and Pittsburgh have also come under fire for dress codes that some allege were tailored to exclude people of color. Some of the codes prohibit clothing such as "baggy attire," while others prohibit specific articles, such as Timberland boots or Nike Air Force Ones.
Eventually, Callahan's bartender friend intervened and got Gordon into the bar. But the incident had soured them on El Centro, and they decided to leave. On the way out, they saw another group of white, sneakers-wearing guests at the coat check. They confronted the bouncer, who Callahan and Gordon say brushed them off.
They were glad to hear that the restaurant fired him, but they both expressed disappointment that El Centro had received previous complaints about racial discrimination but didn't address them until Callahan's article got traction.
"It shouldn't take this massive amount of attention," Callahan said. "If you want to have a policy, have it, but enforce that policy across the board. Don't allow your bouncers to enforce it across their own biases."
The restaurant apologized to Gordon and invited him back, but he says he won't return. "I don't really have any interest in returning to a restaurant that clearly doesn't want me or anyone who looks like me," he said. And as a born-and-raised Washington resident, he sees the incident as another example of gentrification's unrelenting march. "It really feels like they don't want black people to be seen in the areas that were originally theirs," said Gordon.
As for the group of friends, they did their best to make the most of the night. They went down the street to the bar Chicken and Whiskey, where it was easy to get in. "We told the bartender what happened and he just shook his head," Callahan said.
- (c) 2017, The Washington Post