The new Choptank restaurant in Fells Point is being criticized for a dress code some believe targets African Americans and other minorities.
The new Choptank restaurant in Fells Point is being criticized for a dress code some believe targets African Americans and other minorities.

The owners of The Choptank crab house in Fells Point have had a change of heart about what some called a bigoted dress code that sparked outrage and widespread condemnation.

It was a wise choice for the restaurant to revise the policy after the outcry, but the owners could stand to go a little further.

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The original dress code didn’t explicitly say that African Americans or other minorities aren’t welcome at the eatery. But the way the code was written definitely left the impression that they were the group of patrons the Atlas Restaurant Group, owner of the crab house and several other Baltimore restaurants, was trying to target.

No excessively baggy clothing, sunglasses after dark, bandannas, jerseys, athletic attire, brimless headgear and backward or sideways hats. Also, no work boots or construction boots. Maybe the restaurant owners were worried about people walking off a construction site to indulge in crabs, but we bet they also know the Timberland work boot is a pretty popular style of footwear among African Americans. Many of the other articles of prohibited attire that were listed on the sign prominently displayed outside the restaurant were popularized by hip-hop culture, i.e. African American entertainment figures, and adopted by their fans. The fact that some other establishments in Fells Point employ similar dress codes didn’t make it any better; they also need to dump those rules.

Under the revised code released Wednesday, baggy clothing, shorts below the knee and sunglasses after dark are no longer prohibited. They also changed the title from “Strictly Prohibited” to “House Rules.” People still can’t wear brimless headwear unless it is a religious garment. We would have taken it further and allowed the jerseys, work-style boots and the backwards or sideways hats. If you are going to allow hats, why does it matter how they’re worn? Bandanas could theoretically be gang symbols, but what’s the problem with the rest of it?

Even outside the racial context, the dress code was a weird choice for Choptank. Last we checked, crab houses were casual eateries designed for the messy eating and relaxed attire to match, but in its zest to create an elite customer base, Atlas had banned just about all laid-back gear. How many Ravens or Orioles fans will go elsewhere because they can’t wear jerseys except on game days? Most of Fells Point, with its bar-lined blocks and cobblestone streets, has a casual, party feel. What exactly do the owners of the Atlas Group expect people to wear to pick crabs — sparkly heels for women and sport coats for men?

Atlas has a different dress code at some of its other more posh restaurants — including Tagliata, Ouzo Bay and the Bygone at the top of the Four Seasons hotel. No shorts allowed. Gentlemen may not wear hats of any kind. No flip flops. Ladies may not wear baseball caps or beanies. No active wear, gym clothes, sweatpants or hooded sweatshirts. No construction-type boots or hunting apparel. No clothing with vulgar language. No excessively ripped clothing. No jerseys or sleeveless shirts for men. We get they might not want someone showing up after a workout at one of their fine dining establishments, and given the atmosphere at those restaurants, we doubt many people would try even if they didn’t spell it out. But when it comes to The Choptank, we are talking about a crab house with live music and games on the patio.

(While we’re on the subject, what message is Atlas sending with the top-hatted African-American elevator operator at Bygone? We get that they’re trying to conjure a retro vibe, but there are some elements of a 1920s supper club that deserve to be bygone.)

Also important to mention is that The Choptank is located on public property in one of the city-owned markets run by the nonprofit Baltimore Public Markets Corp. That means the taxpayers essentially have a stake in the market and that Atlas has even more of an obligation for the crab house to be welcome to all. City officials also need to make sure the tenants that lease their properties are as inclusive as possible.

Entertainment venues around the country have been entangled in dress code legal battles, including the Baltimore-based Cordish Cos., which modified the dress code at its Kansas City’s Power & Light Entertainment District after the Kansas City Human Relations Department filed a discrimination complaint in 2009 against the company, according to the Kansas City Star. The Cordish Cos. has consistently said it doesn’t discriminate based on a person’s attire and has settled lawsuits on the issue or gotten them thrown out. At least one case was wrapped up in court for years. Is that really what Atlas potentially wants to gear up for?

Joe Sweeney, director of marketing for Atlas, told The Sun in an email that the company doesn’t support discrimination of any kind. Now’s their chance to prove it.

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