I’m still traumatized by this horrible Black restaurant experience

OPINION: I assumed the fried chicken would be great at this Black-owned restaurant, so I ignored the red flags. How wrong I was.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

When Keith Lee told us about all the rules at Black restaurants in Atlanta, I laughed. And, if I’m being honest, I looked down on them. I thought, that’s some Atlanta country mess. I’m a New Yorker. That stuff doesn’t happen here. To my Atlanta sisters and brothers, I am sorry. On Saturday, Atlanta happened to me right in Brooklyn. It was horrifying. I will never laugh at y’all again. I experienced your pain.

Saturday afternoon was a bit unusual for me. My daughter has a game in her volleyball league every Saturday at noon. (Her team won, thanks for asking!) I watched the game and then afterward she announced that she was going to lunch with a friend and I was not invited. Oh. After her games, we usually go eat together at the Japanese place around the corner but not this time. No problem. Also, my wife was not there because she was crazy sick (she’s fine now, thanks for asking, but let’s take it easy on the personal questions; you’ve asked two now and we don’t know each other that well).

Anyhoo, the long and short of it all is: I was going to lunch on Saturday by myself. I could go wherever I wanted. Let’s goooo! I decided to drive to a little creole spot in Brooklyn that I love. Amazing po’ boys and great gumbo. So excited. I had actually never been inside the restaurant, I had only DoorDashed their food, so I was ready. But I got to the door and they’re cash only, and ever since quarantine, I almost never carry cash. I pay for everything with my phone. So I had to call a quick audible because I was getting pretty hungry. This is where things started to go off the rails. 

On the same block was a restaurant that had speakers out on the sidewalk. And they were playing some deep-cut ’70s soul music. I said to myself, “Now that’s a Black restaurant right dere. I’ma try it.” I don’t know why the voice in my head suddenly went into Black grandpa mode but it did. 

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I went to open the front door, but before I did, I saw there was a huge sign on it with giant letters the size of your palm saying something like “Do not enter this door unless directed by words out of the mouth of the hostess” — like really specific directions. I don’t recall exactly what it said because I felt like I was being yelled at, and my brain kinda shut down like, “I ain’t tryin’ to hear all that.” The sign also said something like “Do not congregate inside this door…” At that point, I stopped reading. I counted this as a red flag, but somehow the Blackness of the music had convinced me that there had to be great fried chicken in this place. I’ll put up with a lot for great fried chicken.

Anyway, if you know me you know what happened after I read the sign saying, “Do not enter this door unless directed by words out of the mouth of the hostess.” I opened the door. Someone standing right inside politely said please wait for the hostess. I said I did not see a hostess. They said she’ll be there in a minute. So I stood and waited for the hostess because I was hungry, and I was now convinced that there had to be good fried chicken in there. How else could a place this messy survive if the food wasn’t banging? 

So I finally got seated and ordered my fried chicken and then I started to really look around the restaurant. There were signs everywhere blaring these rules at us about what we couldn’t do. One said, “Due to an unusual amount of fraud, we will not be accepting credit cards without identification.” Another one said, “Due to [some ish], you may not stay longer than 45 minutes after your food is delivered to you.” Were they going to put a clock on the table? Another sign said, “No returns on drinks.” What in the chitlin’ circuit had I stumbled into?

When I go to a restaurant I expect to feel welcomed. The host should greet me warmly, and the space should feel inviting. Everything should say relax, we’ll take care of everything. But instead, they were giving me rules upon rules. It made me feel very put off. I felt like there was an air of condescension toward Black customers. And an air of distrust, too. I felt like the restaurant saw us in an infantilizing way like we didn’t know the basics of dining and needed to be yelled at to act right. All the servers wore T-shirts that said “Good food isn’t fast and fast food isn’t good, don’t judge by the wait, judge what you ate.” Why were they telling us what to do? And why were they wearing T-shirts that seemed to be making excuses for how long the food was going to take? 

The vibe from the restaurant was aggressive and defensive as if they feared their customers were out to get them. We’re complainers, we’re scammers, we’re lingerers. Why are you pursuing Black customers if you think so little of them?

I don’t know why extensive rules are so much more common in Black restaurants except for maybe the internalized racism of restauranteurs who think they need to operate like this. I’m sure they can come up with some real-life examples that seem to justify these rules — surely there are people who behave badly — but expecting bad behavior from all of us because you got it from some of us is deeply offensive.

There’s no way that we, as a people from coast to coast, are so disrespectful and ignorant that we need the restaurant to yell its rules at us. The answer cannot be Black people don’t know how to behave in restaurants. That makes no sense.

I finally got my chicken. 

It was fine but nothing special. Nothing I would ever go out of my way for. I was so disappointed. I went through a lot because I assumed that they had to have great food to survive treating people like this. But you know what you do when you assume. Yep. That be me. I did this to myself.

When the bill came I tipped 20% because I’m not a monster. The waitress was fine. I couldn’t penalize her for management’s choices. Then the waitress did her part to make me feel demeaned and distrusted.

On the bill there was a QR code that sent me to their own app and let me pay them. I finished the app, got a screen with a big green check mark on it and started to walk out. That’s when the waitress put her hand on my arm. She said I had to wait until the completed transaction showed up on her screen. I could not believe this stranger had touched me. My jaw was on the ground. I showed her my phone screen. There was the huge green check mark and these huge words: “You’re all set!” She said that wasn’t enough. I had to wait until she saw confirmation on her computer. She was still touching me. I was too in shock to address that but yes, I was being detained. 

A moment later it popped up on her screen. She said I was free to go. I was beyond unhappy.

To recap: I went in because it was a Black restaurant and I was treated badly precisely because I am a Black customer in a Black restaurant.

That day something inside me died.

Touré, theGrio.com

Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of Masters of the Game on theGrioTV. He is also the host and creator of the docuseries podcast “Being Black: The ’80s” and the animated show “Star Stories with Toure” which you can find at TheGrio.com/starstories. He is also the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is the author of eight books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter.

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