Baltimore’s Choptank restaurant revises dress code after discrimination allegations; mayor defends owner

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Owners of Fells Point’s Choptank restaurant have modified a dress code after accusations of racial discrimination but defended in a statement Wednesday their right to limit what guests can wear.

Atlas Restaurant Group founder Alex Smith called it “unfortunate” that “a brand new, beautifully-restored landmark in the Fells Point neighborhood, which has created more than ... 100 badly-needed jobs for the community, is under scrutiny.”


The original dress code, posted on a plaque outside the restaurant in the south shed of Broadway Market, forbade “excessively baggy clothing" and accessories that some interpreted as excluding African American guests.

Additionally, a note warned that management could “enforce these policies within its discretion." Critics argued that could be an entryway to overt discrimination, violating citizens’ legal rights.


That line was taken out of the updated dress code, labeled “house rules.” It 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.

Smith has donated widely to local politicians, including many members of the Baltimore City Council and Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who came to his defense Wednesday.

“I think people probably read into this wrong," Young said.

Referring to allegations that the dress code at Choptank — which opens Thursday — was meant to exclude black people, Young pointed out that African Americans frequently dine at Atlas properties, where similar dress codes exist. “If you go to any of their restaurants, like Ouzo Bay, there are black folk there,” Young said.

In a series of public Facebook posts, Smith pointed out that Baltimore city schools have a fairly strict dress code. “Hypocrisy knows no bounds,” he concluded. The Choptank’s dress code, Smith wrote, "applies to everyone and everybody, and it’s not changing.”

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The Choptank’s location — in a city-owned former public market — could make it subject to closer examination.

“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.

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


From the perspective of Baltimore author D. Watkins, 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.”

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 sweatpants 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 that event, "I was going down there every week.” He now advises friends and tourists to steer clear of Atlas properties as well.

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