Dining While Black: Why, in a city as diverse as San Francisco,are most patrons in upscale restaurants white?
At 9:20 p.m. on a November Friday, Dr. Eleanor Walker and Gerardo Guzman sat close together in the bar at the elegant Aqua, waiting for their table. The couple had traveled from Detroit so that Walker could attend a medical conference. But the visit also afforded them an opportunity to eat at one of the best seafood restaurants in America.
Like every weekend night, Aqua was jammed. Each of the 120 seats was filled.
Drinkers packed the length of the bar. But instead of grumbling about the long wait or debating whether to order Aqua’s famed mussel souffle or caviar parfait, the couple discussed what to them was much more remarkable. With the exception of one man wedged into the crowd at the bar, they were the only African Americans in the place.
That fact became apparent the moment they stepped through the door and received what Walker simply calls “the stare.”
“It was the patrons, not the host. You could tell people were surprised to see us there,” she said. “For a city like San Francisco, I expected a little more.”
In a city built by immigrants, a place that prides itself on diversity and cultural sensitivity, minorities – particularly African Americans – aren’t coming to dinner.
The phenomenon is a complex social puzzle that dips into class, food culture and demographic reality. A lack of well-known black chefs and maitre d’s is one reason. So is the fact that the Euro-California style of service and food that defines most top San Francisco restaurants doesn’t appeal to certain cultures.
But it also brings up a simple truth: Diners don’t frequent restaurants where they aren’t comfortable. And at some of San Francisco’s best restaurants,
people of color don’t feel welcome.
Even worse, no one wants to talk about it.
A SEA OF WHITE
On the same weekend Dr. Walker dined at Aqua, Chronicle reporters visited 10 of the city’s top restaurants and tallied people of color. The restaurants are located in a corridor stretching roughly from Fifth Street to the bay, from Nob Hill to Mission Street. This section of the city is home to what is arguably America’s highest concentration of top-drawer cooking. Food trends that trickle down to casual restaurants in Cleveland or Denver begin in these establishments. If a chef gets the notion to mash roasted garlic into Yukon gold potatoes, or sear rare ahi tuna, in a few years the dishes will appear on menus all over the country. If cooking were an athletic competition, these restaurants would be Olympic medalists.
Despite their culinary sophistication, these restaurants also stood out that weekend for being strikingly white. In none of the dining rooms did minorities appear to make up even a quarter of the patrons.
Scarborough Research, which studies demographics, consumer trends and lifestyles in 75 markets, verifies what Chronicle reporters observed. In a survey conducted last year, the firm talked to more than 5,000 people in the Bay Area. Of those who told researchers they had been to an upscale restaurant in the last month, almost 80 percent were white. Only 4.5 percent were black. When researchers reduced the field to San Francisco residents, the numbers barely improved.
“One of the biggest challenges in San Francisco is how to make the upscale restaurants less white,” said Clark Wolf, a nationally known restaurant consultant who is based in New York but got his professional start in the Bay Area. “I’ve brought people to San Francisco for years to show them the restaurants and they are often struck by how white and segregated the city is.”
That San Francisco’s upscale restaurants are largely white is not a secret among the city’s African American political and social elite, though the mayor and other city leaders won’t talk about it publicly. Nor will many chefs and restaurateurs, who try to duck even the hint of racial profiling by refusing to discuss the ethnicity of their customers.
“It’s a sensitive issue,” says Ron Siegel, formerly of Charles Nob Hill and now executive chef at Masa’s. “No one wants to make it seem like they are picking people out based on their race.”
A NUMBERS GAME
From a purely socioeconomic standpoint, a reasonable argument could be made that San Francisco simply doesn’t have enough minorities with enough money to eat at places like Fifth Floor or La Folie, where dinner for two can easily surpass $200.
The latest census figures show that only about 8 percent of San Francisco County is African American. Across the bay in Alameda County, there are more than twice as many African Americans – a statistic borne out by the number of blacks eating at some of the nicer restaurants in Berkeley and Oakland. Similarly, people who eat regularly on both coasts will tell you that Manhattan’s better restaurants always seem to be more diverse. From a sheer numbers perspective, it makes sense. Manhattan is 15 percent black. And African Americans make up about a quarter of the whole of New York City.
Asian Americans tend to be more visible than blacks in San Francisco’s best restaurants, but an informal Chronicle survey of restaurants shows their numbers don’t appear to be anywhere near the 30 percent of the city they comprise – despite the fact that as a group they have more disposable income than whites. Latinos, who make up about 19 percent of the city’s population, have less discretionary income than whites. But they have more than the region’s black population.
What really matters, however, is potential spending power. The nation’s Hispanic market is growing by about 40 percent a year. African Americans, who are seeing dramatic growth among their middle class, spent almost $20 billion eating at restaurants in the United States last year. In another five years, minorities will make up about a third of the nation’s market for the restaurant and hospitality industries.
From a business perspective, the math is simple. As more people of color move into the middle class and begin to experience different kinds of restaurants, more will become interested in dinner at the Fifth Floor or Charles Nob Hill or Gary Danko.
But integrated restaurants are about more than dollars in the cash register.
Diversity is the hallmark of a great city. Cultures lend vibrancy. Without a hard look at why San Francisco’s top restaurants are so white, the city might never be the kind of integrated showplace it wants to be.
“People need to start examining how customers are treated and what the ethnic population might bring to the table,” said Andrew Erlich of Erlich Transcultural Communications, based in Woodland Hills (Los Angeles County). A bilingual psychologist, Erlich specializes in multimarket research and trains clients to reach out across cultures.
“A city like San Francisco is a great place for this sort of discussion to start.”
If you’re white, you’ll never experience what’s called “DWB” – Dining While Black. The phrase – a takeoff on Driving While Black, a racial profiling reference that plays off the East Coast police acronym for driving while intoxicated – is used to make light of the treatment some people of color experience when they eat out.
No one is claiming that San Francisco’s fancy restaurants practice the sort of outright racism that plagued establishments like Denny’s in the early 1990s,
when tables of black diners were made to pay for their meals up front. Rather,
what African Americans and other minorities sometimes experience is a more subtle phenomenon.
Take a recent evening Ilana Kaufman spent at Asia de Cuba, one of the city’s newest swank restaurants, located in Ian Schrager’s redone Clift Hotel. Kaufman, an administrator at San Francisco’s Lick Wilmerding High School, had a 6:30 p.m. reservation with her girlfriend and her brother, a New York-based magazine writer.
The three, a good-looking group of young people dressed in business attire, were seated next to a busing station. No matter that most of the seats in the restaurant were empty. When they asked to be moved, the host ushered them to a worse table. Meanwhile, a group of white men were seated at what Kaufman viewed as a prime spot.
A group of Caucasians in that situation might assume they simply got a bad table at a restaurant in a hotel chain with a national reputation for treating the beautiful people better than the rest of us. Kaufman, on the other hand, wondered if it was because she and her brother are African American.
“I have to consider the possibility that it was a subconscious effort on the part of the host,” she said. “The waiter was apologetic and so was our buser. They seemed to know exactly what was going on. The buser was Latino. He gave us those eyes like, “I am sorry you have to suffer through this.’ ”
Kaufman, 29, says it’s nothing new – she grew up in San Francisco and can remember her mother, who is white, going into a restaurant before she and her brother, just to make sure they got a good table. She just didn’t expect it in 2001.
If San Francisco’s best restaurants are discriminatory, it’s not being reported to city officials. Less than a dozen complaints against restaurants were logged last year at the city’s Human Rights Commission. But minorities who eat out a lot say they experience slights – whether real or perceived – all the time. Yasser Taima of Palo Alto left a small tip for what he thought was slow service at a French restaurant south of Market one evening last summer. The waitress explained that a tip in the United States was customarily 15 percent and asked how long the Iraqi-born Taima had been in America. He had lived here for more than 15 years.
DWB is something No‘l Plummer, an African American lawyer in the East Bay who eats out frequently on both sides of the bay, often encounters. “I sometimes get the feeling the person who greets me at an expensive restaurant is wondering if I’m there to deliver a message to someone in the kitchen or drop off a package – not that I’m actually going to be a paying customer,” she said. Gerald Fernandez, an African American and president of the MultiCultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance, says the problem is not unique to San Francisco. His nonprofit advocacy group based in Rhode Island has 500 members and 50 corporate sponsors. Started in 1992, it is considered the nation’s authority on issues of race in the restaurant industry.
“I have eaten in some of the finest restaurants in the world and I have been treated inappropriately – until I ordered the wine. Then they saw I knew what I was doing.” He receives especially bad treatment when his wife orders her steak the way she likes it: well done. In the restaurant world, a well- done steak signals the diner is a rube.
That attitude is an example of one of the subtle ways a restaurant can be culturally insensitive. Fernandez’s wife was raised in the South, where many African Americans eat their meat well done. It’s a taste developed decades ago,
when refrigeration was hard to come by and poor people had to find a way to make inferior cuts of meat palatable.
“That’s how she was brought up. They had to cook the blood out of the meat. But should she get treated badly because of it? No. But they’ve got this assumption that you’re black so you don’t know how to order in a nice restaurant.”
Is it always a racial issue? A good many Caucasians who have eaten at the finest restaurants in San Francisco have been made to feel like rubes, too. One snooty host or a terse waiter can send a negative message. Sometimes what you wear makes a whole lot more difference than what color you are. Just try to get a good table at Campton Place dressed in jeans. That makes judging whether the treatment is truly racially motivated or merely poor service difficult. Says Plummer: “It’s a complicated issue and I can never tell if it’s my race, gender, age or a combination of all three. Or maybe just my imagination.”
But the situation changes when customers bring with them a lifetime of race- based slights, which is the case for some minorities. A study released last month conducted by BET.com and CBS News showed that 85 percent of African Americans in this country believe the history of slavery continues to adversely affect their lives. So when an African American receives poor treatment at a restaurant – whether it is race-based or not – it can be perceived, at its worst, as racism or, at its best, as insensitivity. Either way, it can make someone cross a restaurant off the list for good.
“People in restaurants don’t take the time to consider what that customer is coming in the door with,” says Erlich. “It’s all about “Get the food on the table’ and “The customer is always right,’ but it’s very superficial.”
Waiters or hosts can display unintentional prejudice with body language or a sort of unspoken code. For example, if a waiter is white and is more comfortable with a table of Caucasians or Latino and more comfortable with a table of Latinos, the waiter might spend more time at the table that is most like her. “You need to be aware of that,” Erlich said.
Restaurateurs would be well advised to show an appreciation for a customer’s cultural perspective, to recognize that the customer might be particularly sensitive about where she sits or the style of service. “You need to ask, ÔWill this table be all right?’ Or ÔWould you like to see the table?’ In a very subtle way, you let the person know that you have empathy for them,” Erlich says.
The trick is to figure out what attracts someone to the restaurant table in the first place – and that means having frank discussions about racial differences when it comes to eating. For example, Erlich says it might be worth knowing that Latino cultures are very child-centric and often include multiple generations when eating out. Fernandez points out that in some African American families, celebrating a birthday or other important event at a restaurant means nobody cares enough to prepare a home-cooked meal. Conversely, in some Chinese American families, the restaurant banquet has deep significance for celebrations.
“The problem is we aren’t color blind. It’s human nature to look at difference,” says Erlich. “The question is, “How do you deal with that so that people from all sorts of cultures are comfortable?’ ”
Kaufman puts it a little more simply: “Why would it be so bad to give the white people the crummy table once in a while?”
WHAT’S ON THE PLATE
No doubt, California cuisine is white. Much of the food served at San Francisco’s top restaurants – as well as the course-driven European style of service – by its very nature shuts some people out. With the exception of some recent Asian and Latino influences, California cuisine as envisioned by Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower and a host of other chefs who helped define it in the 1970s and ’80s was based largely on French and, to a lesser degree, Italian, cooking styles. Similarly, the rise of celebrity chefs, starting with Wolfgang Puck and Tower in the 1980s and moving into Food Network stars like Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse, has largely been a cultural movement of Anglo men with European ancestors.
That can translate to food some cultures just don’t like. Tina Webber owns Cafe Kati, a popular upscale fusion restaurant in Japantown, with her chef- husband, Kirk. She’s Chinese and, like many Asians, can’t physically tolerate food heavy with cream and butter. So the pair won’t eat at some of the temples of high French cuisine that make up San Francisco’s restaurant elite.
Diversity on the menu can mean diversity at the door. Chef Mitch Rosenthal of Postrio on Post Street found that his Asian American business is booming. In part, it’s because he began using his annual trips to Japan to influence dishes on his menu. Along with roasted leg of lamb and grilled veal chops, he serves miso soup and crispy whole red snapper. Often on a Sunday night Asian families will outnumber any other group in the dining room.
Similarly, Ron Siegel at Masa’s has a strong Japanese and Chinese following.
Many customers started coming when the late chef Masataka Kobayashi was co- owner. But they follow Siegel because he won Japanese television’s “Iron Chef” competition.
In the same way, certain styles of restaurants and types of food attract some African Americans. In San Francisco, Thanh Long and its sister restaurant,
the casually elegant Euro-Asian Crustacean on Polk Street, are popular among black diners. Angela Johnson, a Muni bus driver, drove from Oakland to San Francisco in October to treat her husband to dinner at Crustacean. She learned about the restaurant from friends, and now she returns for the roasted Dungeness crab and the prawns with garlic noodles – two of the restaurant’s specialties.
“Our people use crab in gumbo, mostly, so we like to eat it in different ways when we go out,” she said. “The way they do it there, it just tastes good.
I like the service and everything. I know what I am going to get for my money. ”
DIVERSITY AT THE STOVE
The person doing the cooking makes a difference, too. The theory is that as more chefs, waiters and maitre d’s from different backgrounds move into prominent positions in the San Francisco restaurant scene, the clientele will change, too.
Certainly, that’s been the case for Johnny Alamilla. He opened his Nuevo Latino cuisine restaurant called Alma on Valencia Street in the Mission a few months ago, after more than a decade cooking at Boulevard, Farallon and Postrio. His sleek, urban 40-seat dining room is often filled with young, upwardly mobile Latinos who are happy to spend $11 on ceviche appetizers and $15.50 for pork chops with smoked chile jus and jicama-cabbage salad.
“They can feel like they are supporting a Latin business owner. These are people who want to have a place where they can go out and feel comfortable and be proud and be in an upscale environment,” he said. “They want to go where people don’t look at you like you have to go bust suds to pay for your dinner. ”
Alamilla believes the kitchens and busing stations around the city are filled with people of color, especially Latinos, who simply need a little more encouragement and food and wine training to move into more prominent positions.
“There’s a lot of talent that isn’t an Anglo-Saxon with a culinary degree,” he said. “Until there is more in the front of the house and owning places, you won’t see more colors in the restaurants.”
But finding people of color to work the best restaurants isn’t necessarily that easy, particularly among African Americans. Edward Hamilton, who is an African American, chairs the hotel, restaurant and hospitality departments for City College. It wasn’t that long ago, he says, that African Americans viewed being a cook or a waiter as a position of servitude. No self-respecting black person wanted to do it.
“Where I grew up, cooks in Kentucky and even New York were all black, just like the railroad sleeping car porters. At that point, being a cook was just one step above being a domestic. We as African Americans never thought about taking it seriously to make it a career.”
But that’s changing, especially as more ethnic celebrity chefs break out, Fernandez says. “The pipeline now has a lot of young, talented chefs who just happen to be of color who want to run restaurants. And they are finding greater success in attracting capital.”
A MATTER OF TIME
Even the most upbeat restaurateur won’t deny that San Francisco’s economy is in meltdown. In the past year, more than four dozen notable restaurants have closed in San Francisco, among them Splendido and Cypress Club. At the same time, the new census numbers show the minority population and its economic strength continue to bloom. All a smart restaurateur has to do is look at the numbers – and start some uncomfortable conversations.
“For some reason, the industry has focused on every other aspect of the customer except ethnicity,” said Fernandez of the MultiCultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance. “People wonder why they can’t attract the minority customer, but they don’t want to look at what they’re doing that keeps them away. You’re beginning to see a change now, but there is a certain level of arrogance among restaurant owners at the very top levels that they know what the customer wants and they know how things should be run.”
Granted, the conversations are hard to have. In fact, people on both sides of the table interviewed for this article were squeamish. Black customers didn’t want to appear to have chips on their shoulders. White restaurant owners didn’t want to even be connected with any public discussion about race. No one wants to get sued. But that squeamishness will have to go away if the city hopes to continue to set the trends.
“Any restaurateur who’s worth his salt is currently or will very soon begin marketing to the ethnic population,” Erlich said. “The population is just changing too dramatically. The Donna Reed customers of the past just aren’t going to be there.”
When it comes to tipping, an honest waiter will tell you the restaurant industry is fueled by a slew of broad stereotypes: A table of single women will demand separate checks, never run up a big bar tab and leave a small tip. A Jewish couple will be demanding but reward you for the work. Europeans, used to having the tip included, won’t leave a penny. A white or Asian man traveling on business will leave at least 20 percent. And African Americans don’t tip well at all.
The stereotypes are just that, but a pair of college professors say there may be some truth to them. In particular, the pair asserts, African Americans they studied leave smaller tips than their Caucasian, Asian or Latino counterparts.
“It’s kind of a dirty secret in the industry that there’s this ethnic difference in tipping but nobody can talk about it because they’re afraid of the fallout,” said Michael Lynn, professor of consumer behavior at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration Hospitality. His partner in the study was Clorice Thomas-Haysbert, director of the Hospitality Management Program at Howard University.
The reasons are an amalgam of custom and experience, the pair reported. Some blacks don’t know about fine-dining tipping customs or simply reject them outright, according to Lynn and Thomas-Haysbert. The pair combined information from a national tipping survey by American Demographics Magazine with restaurant checks and interviews with dozens of Houston-area waiters to produce the recent study.
In it, they conclude that Asians and Hispanics base their tips on quality of service more often than do whites, who tend to tip 15 to 20 percent no matter what. That finding should motivate servers to deliver better service to Asian and Latinos, they concluded.
Blacks are less likely to base a tip on the size of the bill, preferring to tip a set dollar amount no matter how big the bill.
“One of the key findings here is the black-white difference even after rating for service,” Lynn said. “We can’t account for this based on blacks getting bad service. I believe blacks do receive inferior service and they do tip less, but in this study that didn’t happen. So there’s more to the difference in tipping than just the PC explanation.”
Gerry Fernandez, an African American and president of the MultiCultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance, says that some in the black community simply don’t accept the 15-20 percent tipping standard because they think the restaurant, not the customer, should be responsible for paying the waiters.
The situation is hurting some restaurants, according to a series examining top markets for affluent African Americans prepared by DiversityInc.com. Some of the nation’s posh black neighborhoods don’t have white-tablecloth restaurants because restaurant owners believe the people in the neighborhood are bad tippers, the report asserts.
The solution, the study’s authors conclude, is experience. The more that blacks frequent upscale restaurants, the better tippers they become, the study shows. Education levels help, too. As Thomas-Haysbert told DiversityInc.com: “My research said when you look at race, education and income there is not a difference. A black Ph.D. tips like a white Ph.D.,” she said.
The professors encourage frank discussion about the issue, with black organizations, celebrities and the media promoting a 15 to 20 percent tipping norm among African American communities. Additionally, they say, restaurants should provide tipping guides along with the check.
And then there is always the solution in practice by a few restaurants, Chez Panisse among them. An 18 percent gratuity is automatically added to each bill, which makes the question of tips and stereotypes moot.
Kim Severson is a staff writer in the Chronicle’s food department.