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Atlas should drop all dress codes at its Baltimore restaurants after racism claims | COMMENTARY

Marcia Grant and her 9-year-old son, Dallas, shown here at their Elkridge home last week, were turned away from Ouzo Bay based on Dallas' outfit. A white child dressed similarly was allowed to dine, however.
Marcia Grant and her 9-year-old son, Dallas, shown here at their Elkridge home last week, were turned away from Ouzo Bay based on Dallas' outfit. A white child dressed similarly was allowed to dine, however. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Under apparent pressure from the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore, which said it expressed concern about racial discrimination disguised as a dress code, Atlas Restaurant Group issued a statement on Twitter last week saying it had agreed to “discontinue its dress code policies at both of the Hotel’s restaurants — The Bygone and Maximon.” This, the company said, would give it the “opportunity to evaluate the operating impact” of such a move as it assesses similar policies at a half dozen of its other venues.

But instead of conducting a small experiment at two locations, we think Atlas should take City Council President Brandon Scott’s advice and drop the dress codes at all its sites, effective immediately. After all, the company has already seen the “operating impact” of maintaining policies widely viewed as racist.

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Less than a year ago, Atlas came under fire for banning, at its new Choptank restaurant in Fells Point, specific clothing items associated with African American, Hip Hop fashion — including “excessively baggy” clothing; brimless, sideways or backward headgear; work and construction boots, and sunglasses after dark.

And less than two weeks ago, a manager at Atlas property Ouzo Bay in Harbor East was recorded denying a Black mom and her 9-year-old son service on a warm weekend day because the boy was wearing shorts, sneakers and a T-shirt. Meanwhile, a white child similarly dressed was allowed to dine with another group. The mom’s video went viral, no doubt amplified by the nationwide civil rights reckoning underway in America, and drew protesters to the Atlas location.

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We’ll give Atlas founder Alex Smith credit for some apparent growth between the first incident at Choptank, when he complained about the scrutiny and made only minor revisions to the dress code, and the recent incident at Ouzo Bay involving Marcia Grant and her young son, Dallas.

“We should have accommodated those guests,” Mr. Smith told The Sun’s Christina Tkacik. “I’ll never know what it feels like to be Dallas in that moment. But I want the opportunity to meet him. I want the opportunity to be a mentor to him. I want the opportunity to apologize to him and Marcia.”

We’re glad he’s contrite and recognize that efforts have been made: Two Ouzo Bay managers have since been fired, the Four Seasons trial implemented, and updates made to the dress codes at other properties. But we respectfully suggest that he steer clear of the boy. He’s already taught young Dallas enough about how his world operates.

After being informed of the editorial board’s intention to call for all dress codes to be dropped, a spokesman for Atlas responded with a statement attributed to company leadership: “We certainly respect the opinions of many who have expressed themselves during this time — we are listening carefully, with a view toward continued action which improves our company over the long-term. The dress code, and its implementation, will be among the many elements discussed by our new Corporate Social Responsibility Advisory Board, which is currently in the formation stage. We believe that process is as important as outcome, which is why we are building the inclusive advisory function which creates lasting sustainable change.”

He also provided a copy of the latest updates to the dress code still on the books at Ouzo Bay, Ouzo Beach, Loch Bar, Azumi, Tagliata and The Choptank. It suggests a business casual look, and prohibits exposed undergarments, men’s tank tops, hats indoors, bare feet and explicit language or graphics on clothing.

So it looks like the evolution in thinking at Atlas continues. Still we think they can do more. Why not drop the dress codes altogether and see what happens? Drawing a wide and varied customer base would seem a priority especially now, when businesses are suffering under the weight of a pandemic and restrictions on public gatherings. Atlas can always bring the codes back later if some kind of issue arises, and then, they’d have the benefit of being able to make a case based on evidence. Although, we struggle to envision the problems they’re afraid will occur. That the rich, shoeless riffraff will roll in?

The menu prices at some of their establishments already exclude a significant portion of the population based on what they can afford, not how appropriately they dress. At The Bygone, for example, a cocktail goes for $17, and entrees range from a low of $30 for a “Half Amish Chicken” $130 for 34 ounces of dry aged prime beef.

We suppose wealthy criminals could be a concern, but restaurants are certainly free to call the police if they suspect illegal activity is taking place in their establishments — and putting a drug dealer in a jacket and tie changes nothing but the person’s appearance.

Though highly subjective, protecting a site’s ambience seems at least a credible rationale for implementing a dress code at a restaurant that presumably wants to make money. Many people see dressing up as part of the fun on a special night out, and a sign of respect for the venue and other patrons. But in most areas of life, peer pressure suffices to enforce such an unwritten dress code, and it certainly should work here. Show up to the symphony in a T-shirt or the hottest club in your favorite dad jeans, for example, and expect the stank eye from others.

Dress codes have been used to control and exclude people for generations in varying environments, from schoolrooms to barrooms. And, we’d like to see all venues and institutions that have such policies take a hard look at their rules and ask themselves what it is they’re truly trying to promote — or prevent. But whatever your view of dress codes, it’s clear that when restaurants and other venues try to maintain an atmosphere, or whatever they want to call it, by barring fashion specific to certain groups of people, they’re no longer looking to elevate their clientele, they’re looking to separate it. A company as concerned with appearances as Atlas apparently is, should recognize that this is not a good look.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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