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Can A Restaurant Be For Everyone?

Posted by

Jun 08, 2020
Can A Restaurant Be For Everyone?

"White people are comfortable anywhere," says restaurateur Andy Shallal. "In order for a black person to walk into a space, there need to be signals that say, 'You're welcome.'"

In this week's show we decode those signals, which include the decor and music, the staff and other customers, and more. These codes tell you what kind of place a restaurant is, and whether it's for you. So what happens when a restaurant uses these signals to bring some people in and keep others out?

"We like to think that restaurants are places where we bring everyone together – and they can be," says Todd Kliman, who's written about racial coding in restaurants. "But very often, restaurants are exclusionary spaces."

This week we visit three very different restaurants in Washington, D.C., to talk with the owners and customers about the different signals these places send, and what those signals can tell us about larger questions of race and culture.

Sankofa is a cafe, video store, and bookstore near Howard University. "We wanted to have a black space," says Tensae Berhanu, who runs the cafe. "We feel it is important to have a space where we can explore our past meaningfully." Slim's Diner closed back in January, but around the time it first opened in 2016, we talked to the owner, Paul Ruppert, who said that he purposely designed his restaurant to avoid sending any overt signals to customers. That means not putting duck bacon on the menu, and not hiring the prospective chef who suggested it.

When Andy Shallal opened the restaurant Busboys and Poets in 2005, he purposely designed his restaurant to be welcoming to many different groups of people – from a huge mural celebrating multicultural leaders to the menu and even his staff. "In order for a black person to walk into a [restaurant], there have to be signals that say, 'you're welcome,'" Andy says. But is Andy's strategy at Busboys akin to pandering? Can you make a restaurant for everybody? And if you could, is that even what people want?

Note: This episode first aired four years ago. We know that many of us can’t go to restaurants right now, but we think the questions it raises are bigger than restaurants, and remain very relevant today.

This episode contains explicit language.

Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:

- "Pong" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt

- "Can You Dig It" by Cullen Fitzpatrick

- "Feel Real Good" by William Van De Crommert

- "Midnight Grind" by Cullen Fitzpatrick

- "Hot Night" by Calvin Dashielle

- "Legend" by Erick Anderson

Photo courtesy of Busboys and Poets PHOTOS.

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