Food & Drink

When is a dress code discrimination? Rules at Baltimore’s Choptank restaurant cause outcry

Posted by a brick wall outside the Choptank restaurant, newly installed in the former south shed of Fells Point’s Broadway Market, a plaque stated a list of prohibitions. Among them: excessively baggy clothing, sunglasses after dark and bandannas. “Management may enforce these policies within its discretion,” said a note at the bottom.

As a photo of the sign circulated on social media, a Twitterstorm brewed; critics accused the highly anticipated restaurant of racial discrimination, touching off a controversy that led the restaurant group to revise the dress code.


Representatives of owner Atlas Restaurant Group attested that it opposed discrimination, and they decried “false accusations” of racism. In a statement, Atlas founder Alex Smith called it “unfortunate” that “a brand new, beautifully-restored landmark in the Fells Point neighborhood, which has created more than a 100 badly-needed jobs for the community, is under scrutiny.”

The core of the criticism was that the prohibited styles are popular with some in the African-American community, and that the Choptank — opening Thursday — was telegraphing who management didn’t want coming.


"It sounds very questionable,” Marvin “Doc” Cheatham said of the dress code at Choptank; he’s a longtime civil rights leader in Baltimore and president of the Matthew A. Henson Neighborhood Association. Work boots, banned at the restaurant, are popular footwear within black and Latin communities, he said: “I own three pairs of Timberlands.”

Some critics took particular exception to the warning about management’s “discretion,” saying that could be an entryway to overt discrimination, violating citizens’ legal rights.

That line was among a handful removed from the Choptank’s revised dress code, which Atlas provided to The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday. Formerly titled “Strictly Prohibited,” the list is now called “House Rules” and no longer prohibits baggy clothing, shorts below the knee or sunglasses after dark. It notes an exception to its ban on brimless headwear ⁠— religious garments are allowed ⁠— but most of the original rules are intact.

The Atlas Restaurant Group comprises ambitious restaurants and bars, existing and planned, in Baltimore, Boca Raton, Fla., Houston and Washington, D.C. Smith’s roots — and wealth — run deep in the Baltimore area. Smith’s grandfather, John Paterakis, made a fortune through his company, H&S Bakery, and spearheaded the development of Harbor East. Smith’s father co-owns conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group, based in Hunt Valley.

Smith has donated widely to local politicians, including Mayor Bernard C. Jack Young, who came to Smith’s defense Wednesday. Young said Smith and Atlas frequently give money for charitable projects such as Toys for Tots.

“I think people probably read into this wrong," said Young, who attended the Choptank’s ribbon-cutting last week. “There’s not a racist bone in that guy’s body. This guy will give you the clothes off his back to help people.”

Young said African-American customers patronize Atlas restaurants such as Ouzo Bay and said Smith invited a black musician to play at his wedding. “If he was racist, do you think he would have a black artist play at his wedding?”

Despite the revisions, Smith appears to be doubling down on the dress code. In a series of public Facebook posts, Smith pointed out that Baltimore city schools have a more strict dress code than the restaurant he owns. “Hypocrisy knows no bounds,” he concluded. The Choptank’s dress code, Smith wrote, "applies to everyone and everybody, and it’s not changing.”


Joe Sweeney, director of marketing for the Atlas Restaurant Group, said the restaurant group’s dress codes are enforced without regard for to race or other protected categories. Similar dress codes exist at other Atlas properties including the Bygone, where women are forbidden from wearing backless sandals.

But the Choptank’s location — in a city-owned former public market — could make it subject to close scrutiny.

“Given that the restaurant is in a property owned by the people of Baltimore, the standards for inclusivity and diversity must be high," the Rev. Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, wrote in an email to The Sun. The Fells Point property is leased through the Baltimore Public Markets Corp.

“While we can’t say with certainty what the intent was in the posting of the sign, how the Atlas Group responds to the community’s reaction will tell us all that we need to know," Little wrote.

Stacey Pack, project manager for the Baltimore Public Markets, said the organization could not disclose what Atlas or any other vendor pays in rent to the city.

From a legal perspective, dress codes are not inherently problematic, even if they’re enforced at the discretion of management, says Baltimore lawyer Thomas Donnelly. He points to a 2010 case in Louisiana, Dunaway v. Cowboys Nightlife Inc., in which the courts sided with a nightclub that had banned baggy attire on the grounds that it posed a safety hazard to guests.


A plaintiff alleging discrimination would have to prove a pattern of unequal treatment of customers. “If you’re applying that standard differently for men and women or for people of different ethnic backgrounds, that could become a problem,” Donnelly said.

Baltimore author D. Watkins began a one-man boycott of Atlas-owned restaurants after being denied entry at Harbor East’s Loch Bar. At the time, Watkins said, he was wearing pants by Zanerobe, “which look like sweat pants to the fashionably challenged” he wrote in a Tweet — but are sold at high-end stores like Neiman Marcus.

“I thought it was ridiculous,” said Watkins, who is black. Before the incident, “I was going down there every week.” He advises friends and tourists to steer clear of Atlas properties.

Responding to the incident, Sweeney said: “We welcome Mr. Watkins back to any Atlas property as long as he is properly dressed.”

From Watkins’ perspective, the dress codes across Atlas properties are designed to exclude black people from entering. He points to the ban on “designer sneakers” at the Bygone. “C’mon, dog,” he said. "It’s kind of clear.”

The Choptank isn’t the only Fells Point establishment with a proscriptive dress code. Others include the Horse You Came In On and the Dog Watch Tavern, where patrons are also barred from white T-shirts and excessive jewelry.


In response to the initial outcry, the Choptank’s Twitter account pointed to such dress codes. But that did little to quell criticism.

New Yorker writer Helen Rosner had tweeted that the policy was part of a “long, toxic and well-documented history of dress codes ... being thinly veiled (if veiled at all) anti-black racism."

“It is racist," said Charisse Nichols, who is the general manager at Harbor East’s Bar Vasquez and is African American. "Can you point out to me what white friends you have that dress that way?”

In an email to The Sun, Scott H. Marder, a lawyer representing Atlas Restaurant Group, disputed the characterization of the dress code as racist. He pointed to Atlas’ “strong policy against discrimination” and said, “Atlas prides itself in operating restaurants that are open to all and free from discrimination."

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“Racism still exists in this country and needs to be stamped out wherever it is found,” he wrote. “However, false accusations of racism do nothing to eliminate discrimination or foster better understanding among people.”


Dress codes, such as Choptank’s, “help create a particular atmosphere in ... restaurants, regardless of the race of the guests,” Marder wrote.

Nichols said the Argentine eatery where she works has no official dress code.

“We just say proper attire required,” Nichols said. But she welcomes guests regardless of clothes. Former Orioles great Jim Palmer, she points out, once came in sweatpants.

“If someone comes into your restaurant, what they’re wearing should literally be the last thing you’re concerned about," Nichols she said. "It’s Baltimore.”

To Nichols, the Choptank case presses on a deeper bruise within Baltimore’s culture, and a historic sense among many black people that they are not welcome in certain places. “And that, to me, is the saddest part of all," she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.