Coding and Decoding Dinner

By  |  May 13, 2015
“Old Chairs,” by DeeAnne Wagner “Old Chairs,” by DeeAnne Wagner

Southern hospitality is more than what we call “etiquette.” It’s a sensibility. A way of being in the world. A philosophy. A spirit. You don’t just open your doors to a stranger; you lavish that stranger with kindness, attention, and care. Nor are you simply accepting someone you don’t know into your home. In the purest sense, you are accepting that stranger as an extension of yourself.

This is what is known as “welcome” in the South. And there is no thinking of it except in the purest sense. “Welcome” is an almost mythic conceit, one bound up with the very ways the region chooses to think of itself—sun-dappled land of kindness, grace, and mercy.

But if we choose to see the South as it really is, and as it once was—and if we are honest in admitting that in many ways what is is not so very different from what was—then we find ourselves with a messier, more authentic picture of welcome.

Last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of restaurant desegregation, we celebrated a signifying moment in the long march toward full and equal citizenship for black Americans. But we delude ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that there is a difference between being admitted and being welcomed.

The court order that ended desegregation stipulated that every cafe, tavern, Waffle House, and roadside joint must open its doors to all. It did not, could not, stipulate that whites in the South must also open their hearts and minds to all. Welcome was, and is, the final barrier to racial parity.

We have witnessed remarkable progress over the past five decades, yes, and we should acknowledge this, too. What seemed fanciful, even utopian, a generation ago is now so commonplace as to not bear any comment at all. We have come to expect and accept black and white in the workplace, on the playing field, in politics, in the military, and we congratulate ourselves on our steady march to racial harmony. But our neighborhoods and our restaurants do not look much different today than they did fifty years ago. That Kingly vision of sitting down at the same table together and breaking bread is as smudgy as it’s ever been.


I have a day job in Washington, D.C., as a food critic. I’ve done it for ten years. During that time, the city has become bigger and more cosmopolitan, the restaurant scene has evolved from that of a steak & potatoes town to that of a vibrant metropolis, and people now talk excitedly about going out to eat. But what no one talks about is the almost total absence of black faces in that scene.

I count faces, I have to confess. It’s a habit. Something I began doing when I was teaching at Howard University, when I was made to see myself as white in the world—whiteness not as neutral, as baseline, but as an idea, a construct. I began to keep a tally, each night, of the non-whites in the room. I eat out, on average, ten times a week in restaurants that span the gamut from ambitious fine-dining to so-called ethnic mom & pops. So let’s do the math. That’s 40 restaurant visits a month for 4 months, or 160 restaurant visits. Only 8 times—8 times out of 160—did I see more than 10 black folks in the room during any one lunch or dinner. On more than 90 of those restaurant visits, I did not see any faces other than white faces.

We’re not talking about Provo, Utah. Or Johannesburg, South Africa. We’re talking about a town enshrined in song, four decades ago, as Chocolate City.

Yes, the black majority may be a thing of the past—the recent census shows that whites now make up a paper-thin majority—but blacks remain a force in local politics. They are heavily represented in both the government bureaucracy and the workplace. And Prince George’s County, where I live, is home to the largest black middle class in the country.

So why aren’t they coming to dinner? It’s a question I’ve been asking for almost as long as I’ve been a restaurant critic. And—not that I’m surprised—no one seems interested in answering it. Or even addressing it.


I’ve tried, for almost ten years now, to get a publication interested in a piece that would go in search of an answer. That’s dynamite, one editor told me—and then he immediately sought to make me understand how fraught such a piece would be. I was white, he said, and that meant simply taking on a subject like this, in a candid and honest way, would invite attack or censure. And, he reminded me, most whites would not care.

This was meant, I suppose, to dissuade me from wading too deeply into choppy waters. From wasting my time. But my fascination with the question has not gone away, and, if anything, as the years have gone on, I am more interested in finding the answer or answers, not less.

I mentioned that I’ve lately been keeping a tally. Well, for the past five years, I’ve also been making notes and interviewing restaurateurs and industry observers for a piece I thought might never reach an audience. None I have spoken with over the years has been willing to go on the record and put a name and title to the observations and insights they’ve shared with me. So you’ll have to take it on faith when I say that the things they’ve told me are true.

Most of those folks are white; the men who make decisions in the restaurant world—they are almost unfailingly men—are almost unfailingly white. The common denominator of my honest but off-the-record conversations with these white insiders—the one thing they all spoke to me about—was something I’ve taken to calling the 60–40 line, a line they live in fear of crossing.

Sixty-forty: that’s a dining room that’s 60 percent white and 40 percent black. Forty percent is the tipping point, they all said. More than 40 percent black, and suddenly, they said, the numbers don’t just flip. More than 40 percent, and—said one—the whites scurry to their holes like mice. Soon, he said, you’re looking at a restaurant where the clientele is predominantly black.

I said I thought that might be just a tad paranoid. This one restaurateur, a good, well-meaning man—they were all good, well-meaning men, the men I spoke with—looked at me and said that you could never be too careful when it came to running a business where every day you essentially began from scratch. But 60–40 would seem to me to be a problem to think about only if you have a 40 percent black audience. And there aren’t more than a handful of restaurants in the city that can say that.

The black folks in the industry I’ve spoken with have been similarly reluctant to go on the record, mostly for fear of reprisal; they don’t want to be seen as angry or unhappy or ungrateful. One, a former general manager who now manages an underground supper club, told me that it was important to remember that it hasn’t been that long, historically. Yes, he said, blacks today have a mobility their grandparents lacked. But that’s not to say that they’ve been exposed to the experiences many whites have. This explains, he said, the glaring absence of blacks from most Indian, Vietnamese, Bolivian, Afghan, Thai, and sushi restaurants in the D.C. area.

When I pointed out that I myself have only been eating sushi for twenty years, he said, “But see, you were exposed to other kinds of food earlier. And that probably prepared you for sushi.”

What about younger blacks who are growing up in a world in which sushi can be found in grocery stores? I asked. And yet you still don’t see them in the restaurants.

“Because their parents didn’t grow up eating sushi,” he said.

“Well, neither did mine.”

“But your parents grew up eating—I’m guessing—grew up eating all kinds of different foods, right? And you grew up, I’m guessing again, in a world that was not a segregated world. Most black folks, they grew up in black neighborhoods and went to black schools. So: exposure.”

And what about the non-so-called ethnic restaurants?

That’s a matter of exposure, too, he said. “To know the protocol. To interact with a sommelier. Whites—not all whites, but more whites—have been doing it for longer. They tend to know these things. Going out to dinner isn’t just about the food. It’s a whole system you have to learn. And an etiquette. It’s not as simple as just showing up.”

There was a Yogi-ism in here, I said. There are no blacks in the dining rooms, because—there are no blacks in the dining rooms?

“I mean, don’t laugh,” he said. “Seeing black faces out front—the GM, the chef, that would go a long way. But we don’t have a lot of black chefs or GMs. Having black staff—you know, a third black, for example—that surely would help. But again, you don’t see much of that.”

Those who were most outspoken feared reprisal from two directions, from whites and blacks. These, to me, were the most interesting—people whose ideas were likely to disturb folks on both sides.

I shared the former GM’s exposure theory with a woman who has been in the food world in Washington for more than twenty-five years, as a cook and a consultant. She said, “Well, exposure, sure. But also the fact that, I’m sorry—black folks are just plain ol’ conservative in their tastes. Nobody wants to hear that, but it’s true. So you take a fish restaurant, or a fish and seafood restaurant, or a barbecue place, and you’re gonna see black folks. Guaranteed. These are the foods we know. These are our comfort foods. Now, you take unusual foods, and in a setting that doesn’t feel familiar, and with lots of white folks in the room? Uh-uh. Remember, why do we gather to eat? For most of us—black and white—it’s to feel good. To feel a sense of well-being. Of home.”

I thought about her comments recently when the office of the Prince George’s county executive invited me to lunch to solicit my ideas for attracting a name restaurant. I said that I thought the right kind of restaurant would be a crossover restaurant, a place that would appeal equally to black and white. Ideally, I said, a fish and seafood spot of such high quality and freshness that diners from all over the region would be persuaded to make the trip. One of the CE’s staff members, a woman, nodded her head enthusiastically in agreement.

And then I began talking about the hypothetical menu. Stews teeming with langoustines, mussels, and cuttlefish. Oysters on the half shell and other items from the raw bar. Crudo.

“Crudo?” she wrinkled up her nose. “What’s that?”

I told her.

“Raw fish? Uh-uh. Nope. Not gonna work.” She suggested instead a fried fish restaurant—”you know, something like the Neelys on TV would do”—and began describing the kind of place that, even new, would feel like a relic. A place, in other words, that is unlikely to generate broad excitement.

So much of what I was hearing, on both sides, came down to fear. The 60–40 was about fear. About not taking chances, and not risking a good thing. The exposure theory, the remark about culinary conservatism—these, too, were about fear. Not venturing beyond safe harbor. Sticking with the known, with what’s easy. Needing reassurance.

It is no wonder we talk so much about comfort foods, I thought. Food: it’s where we run to for safety. It’s what we hide behind.


It was a man named Andy Shallal who helped me to understand the possibilities for a better, more integrated future while also reinforcing the manifold problems of the present. Shallal made me understand that no one ever need say, “keep out.” That a message is embedded in the room, in the menu, in the plates and silverware, in the music, in the color scheme. That a restaurant is a network of codes. It’s a phrase that, yes, has all sorts of overtones and undertones, still, in the South. I’m using it, here, in the semiotic sense—the communication by signs and symbols and patterns.

I don’t see coding as inherently malicious. But we need to remember that restaurants have long existed to perpetuate a class of insiders and a class of outsiders, the better to cultivate an air of desirability. Tablecloths, waiters in jackets and ties, soft music—these are all forms of code. They all send a very specific, clear message. That is, they communicate without words (and so without incurring a legal risk or inviting criticism or censure from the public) the policy, the philosophy, the aim of the establishment.

Today, there are many more forms of code than the old codes of the aristocracy. Bass-thumping music. Cement floors and lights dangling from the ceiling. Tattooed cooks. But these are still forms of code. They simultaneously send an unmistakable signal to the target audience and repel all those who fall outside that desired group.

I spoke to a restaurateur not long ago who told me, “I don’t engage in coding.” I responded that I begged to differ. We code even when we’re not aware that we’re coding. He may not have been trying overtly to exclude—I know he would never do such a thing—but his restaurant speaks a very particular language. It has a microbrewery on the premises—and, according to the Madison Beer Review, only three percent of craft beer drinkers in the U.S. are black. Its staff is almost exclusively white. Attached to the restaurant is a general store selling penny candy, knickknacks, and other nostalgic oddities that take browsers back to the Fifties—hardly a time that most black Americans want to relive.

When Shallal opened the first location of Busboys and Poets, near U Street in Washington, D.C., he told me that he wanted to create a restaurant that would knit together black and white. He was not the first D.C. restaurateur to make the attempt. Gillian Clark’s Colorado Kitchen, now shuttered, was the kind of homey, self-effacing place you see much more of in the South than in the North. I once described it as the most integrated restaurant in the city, which was, in retrospect, a regrettable bit of sloppiness. Yes, blacks and whites came together to break bread, but allow me now to adjust the image that is no doubt taking root in your mind. From the time it opened until about seven o’clock, the room was predominantly black. From seven until closing, it was predominantly white. In the sweet spot of about 6:45, the dining room was, yes, the fulfillment of King’s vision. Clark told me that it bothered her to see this division, and that she tried hard to integrate the room. To little avail.

Shallal decided to try harder. U Street was a kind of hallowed ground for black Washingtonians, the heart of their nightlife during the benighted period of Jim Crow, where Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, and others played nightly to packed houses. It was destroyed in the 1968 riots and was slowly groping its way back to life. His hope, Shallal told me, was to create a space that would show what the new U Street could look like. He felt uniquely qualified for the task, given that he was Iraqi and had for years brought together Jews and Arabs in the Peace Cafe dinner discussions he hosted after performances at the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center. Shallal was well aware of the 60–40 principle, and as much as he intended the restaurant to be a place of racial harmony, he was careful not to cross certain lines. Sitting down with me one day to talk about his vision a few weeks after opening, he told me that 60–40 guided many of his early decisions.

The restaurant was a kind of multiplex, which, in addition to serving food, would serve as a coffeehouse, a bookstore, and a performance space. There were nightly events, sometimes two or three plays or performances or readings in a single night. He spoke to me at length, and also with great angst, about how important it was to not schedule too many events in any given night that would attract a predominantly black crowd. If the restaurant scheduled no events that attracted a black audience—if its programming was regarded as appealing much more to whites than blacks—then that was just as bad. Busboys and Poets could be a spectacular financial success, but he said he would consider it a failure if the mix tipped too far in one direction or the other. His menu, I understood that day, was written in code.

“I have field greens on the menu,” he said. “Only I don’t call them field greens. I say—lettuce. I have chorizo on my pizza. Only I don’t call it chorizo—I call it pepperoni.”

On the tables he would not put out just salt and pepper, he would also include tiny bottles of hot sauce. And that was not the end of it. He commissioned an artist to paint murals on the walls—murals that included images of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Gandhi, and others.

Shallal knew that what he was doing was, at some level, a form of pandering. And that some, like my more waggishly cynical black friends, would see his restaurant not as a symbol of hope, but as an emblem of condescension. At lunch one day not long after Busboys and Poets had opened, one of those friends of mine nodded toward the mural along one wall, with its images of King, Malcolm X, and Gandhi, and its inspirational quotations, and smirked and said, “I feel like I’m walking down the halls in junior high.”

Shallal and I spoke for five hours that day, and as the afternoon light receded and the house lights came up, I told him that he had gone to lengths that no other restaurateur in the city had gone to. He looked at me across the table and said, “I have to. If I don’t go to these lengths, it just won’t work.” In other words, if he didn’t make a very conscious—even self-conscious—attempt at reaching a black audience.

It’s impossible to know whether people came because of his concerted efforts, or whether they would have come anyway, because Busboys and Poets is such an interesting and irresistible mix of elements. But almost from the start the restaurant drew throngs of customers, black and white (and Asian and Latino), old and young, hipster and square, and emerged as a new symbol of U Street—that magical third place we all seem to want so desperately in our neighborhoods and towns.


The first Busboys and Poets opened ten years ago. I was hopeful, then, that its success and the exciting vision it portended might inspire a new generation. There’s a contagiously progressive spirit in the air right now, and some young D.C. restaurateurs speak earnestly and excitedly of blurring the old divisions. The city is witness to some fascinating experiments in high-low, in rusticity and refinement, as chefs draw inspiration from old truths to create new ideas, new techniques, new flavors.

But black and white are still largely separate. Shallal was interventionist in coding this restaurant, flagrantly and unapologetically so. He made explicit, sometimes straining overtures to a long-neglected audience, while being careful to limit their numbers in the building. He purposely framed his cuisine so as to not exclude anyone, underselling the quality of his ingredients for what he perceived to be the greater good. Yet Busboys and Poets has inspired no followers, other than Shallal himself, who promptly opened three more locations, with another on the way (there are now six locations along the East Coast).

Is it that everyone is too fearful to take a chance? Or is it that there is only one Andy Shallal? Or both?

Or is it that this kind of social engineering in the context of dining out feels, even to some progressive ears, not just intrusive, but somehow also contrary to the very spirit of breaking bread, of the table?

Food is intimate. We take it into our bodies. When we gather at the table with friends and family, we’re gathering to affirm something. When we gather for business, we’re gathering to cement something. The table, the notion of breaking bread—this is meant to establish an intimacy and gesture toward trust.

What Andy Shallal has proven—indisputably proven—is that it’s possible. It’s possible to bring black and white together under one roof. It’s possible to do it both peaceably and profitably. But not without enormous work. And not without conscious and even self-conscious outreach. And not without a daily, even hourly, tending of the delicate mix.

Read more from our Spring 2015 issue. 

Todd Kliman is the author of The Wild Vine, and a James Beard Award–winning food critic. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Lucky Peach, The Daily Beast, and other publications, and has been anthologized many times. He has just finished a book about his father.