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Critics say a new Baltimore crab house is targeting minorities with its strict dress code

(Photo courtesy of J.M. Giordano)

This story has been updated with comments from the co-owner of Choptank.

Choptank, a seafood restaurant that opened this week in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore, posted a dress code on the gate outside its doors warning would-be diners of the kinds of sartorial statements not allowed in the establishment.

Among the banned items: baggy clothing (“pants must be worn at the waist”), backward or sideways hats and work and construction boots.

A picture of the sign, posted to Twitter, drew criticism for seemingly targeting minorities. “’No POC’ is much more succinct,” commented one user. “I dunno, prohibiting outside food and beverage seems reasonable. The rest is racist though,” tweeted another.

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The outrage really took off when R. Eric Thomas, a popular Baltimore-based writer, posted that Choptank had blocked him on Twitter after he asked the restaurant to “explain the rationale behind the restrictions.” (It later unblocked him, he tweeted, though he wrote he wished the restaurant instead “would revisit the intentions and effects of the specificity of their dress code.”)

Choptank, whose marketing director did not respond to The Washington Post’s calls or emails, responded on Twitter to the initial post, claiming the policy was standard operating procedure in the neighborhood. “Being new to the Fells Point neighborhood, we simply implemented the dress code standard that is used by several other properties in the area including Barcocina, Bond Street Social Moby’s and The Horse You Came In On. Have a great day.”

That’s at least partly wrong. Jassera Contreras, a host at Barcocina, said the restaurant has no such policy. “We don’t really have a dress code,” she said. “We’re casual fine dining but basically as long as you don’t come in in your pajamas, you’re okay. We’ve never kicked anyone out or anything.”

At Bond Street, there is no dress code on weekdays, a woman answering the phones said, but after 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, it bans hats of all kinds, boots, hoodies, baggy or ripped jeans, military attire, athletic footwear and tank tops on men.

Choptank co-owner Alex Smith on Wednesday posted an image of the restaurant’s tweaked dress code on his Facebook page. Instead of “Strictly Prohibited,” the sign now reads “House Rules.” The policy is largely unchanged, though the new version lifts the ban on baggy clothing, below-the-knee shorts and sunglasses worn after dark. It also adds an exception for religious garments on its policy against brimless hats.

Dress codes are fraught territory. Reuben A. Buford May, a sociology professor at Texas A&M who has studied discrimination in nightlife and public accommodations, says they are not bad in and of themselves. Upscale establishments, particularly nightclubs, might want to “set a standard,” he says. But when the language targets very specific styles, he adds, it indicates the restaurant might be singling out groups they find undesirable. On Choptank’s sign, he noted the “shorts below the knee” could be shorthand for hip-hop inspired styles.

“Anytime you have something that specific, it’s pretty likely it’s being used in a discriminating way,” May says. “It means that a particular group is being penalized for that being their style.”

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On the other hand, he notes, dress codes can also result in discrimination where they are vague. Choptank’s ban on “offensive” and “inappropriate” attire is broad and undefined. But the part of Choptank’s rules that most stood out to him was the final caveat: “Management may enforce these rules within its discretion,” it read. “That last line was the one that killed me — it says, ‘we can pick and choose who comes in,’ and that’s where you could have total disrespect for the Civil Rights Act,” May says.

The line was removed from the updated rules Smith posted to Facebook on Wednesday, which now conclude with: “We thank you for your understanding and for your support.”

Other restaurants owned by Atlas Restaurant Group, which operates Choptank and 11 other establishments around the city, have dress codes. The policy at the Bygone, a swanky 1920s-styled restaurant in the Four Seasons hotel overlooking the city’s harbor, forbids non-collared shirts and flip-flops. It states that it will be “strictly enforced,” language May says is less problematic because it indicates the rules apply equally to everyone.

In his Wednesday statement, Smith defended the restaurant group’s dress code policies, saying the various codes used at its different restaurants were aimed at “preserving guest experiences to make sure they are dining in an atmosphere that fits their special occasion.”

He noted that his company employs more than 1,000 people, two-thirds of whom are minorities. “Diversity and inclusion are incredibly important to our company,” he wrote.

Atlas is owned by brothers Alex and Eric Smith, whose father, Frederick Smith, is a co-owner and director of the conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group, which operates TV stations around the country.

Suzanne Loudermilk, a Baltimore native and longtime food writer, said it is uncommon for any restaurant to have a dress code in Fells Point, a neighborhood she describes as having a casual vibe where shorts and T-shirts are the norm. The streets are paved in stones, she notes, making walking in heels difficult. “I’ve seen people try it, and it’s not pretty,” she said.

She wondered why Choptank, which bills itself as a “fish and crab house,” expects patrons to dress up at all. “When people eat crabs, it’s messy,” she said. “You have to dress casually.”

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