Do Black People Have A Dining Issue?

The answer is yes, but it’s bigger than twerking at brunch

Photo by Cesar Carlevarino Aragon on Unsplash

Black Twitter has been beside itself all week. Chet Hanks went full Jafaican on Clubhouse, and then Obama (un)surprisingly denounced “defund the police.” But the uproar started when video footage of a Dallas restaurateur berating customers about twerking in his establishment went public.

Kevin Kelley, owner of TRUE Kitchen and Kocktails, says he asked three separate tables — occupied by female diners — more than once to cease dancing. Kelley added that patrons were also standing atop restaurant furniture and pressing their hands onto his window glass. (I’d assume those hands were not spotless.) Despite the owner’s pleas, the performances continued until the straw snapped the camel’s spine. Kelley went off, addressing the entire restaurant, in an indignant manner, letting it be known that TRUE Kitchen and Kocktails did not condone “twerking and shit.” His reasoning was that 75% of his customers are female and he didn’t feel he could ask men to carry themselves in a respectable fashion if the women were behaving licentiously. Then he lowered the stock of his message by directing those who couldn’t behave accordingly to “get the fuck out.”

Four million views later, the video is certified viral. Emotions exploded on Black Twitter in great volume and variety — by some who were present for the chastisement, but primarily those only privy to the video. The opine pendulum swung from accusations that the owner’s rant was a misogynistic indictment on women’s sexuality and bodies to standing in agreement with Kelley that — as Chris Rock once joked — niggas are always ruining it for Blacks.

To some degree, I agree with both viewpoints. Hear me out.

Although Mr. Kelley’s approach was unnecessarily absent of professional decorum and hypocritical of someone sensitive to optics, his point was solid gold. Prior to any qualification for Kelley, let me go on record by stating that the wrong committed by TRUE’s owner and customers stem from a deeper-rooted problems with African-Americans in the fine dining space. It’s something that struck me later in adulthood in both personal and professional settings. Little is more painful than watching grown men try to settle a dinner bill by only factoring the net of their food order because they’re not conditioned to consider tax and gratuity.

I’ll never forget a particular family brunch nearly a decade ago at a swanky new eatery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. After menus were passed around the dining table, one of my cousins from Brownsville — the most impoverished and crime-infested section of Brooklyn — leaned into me and asked, “What are the numbers next to the food? Initially, I thought they were joking. Then it hit me like a Nate Robinson opponent. They couldn’t recognize the prices because the numbers were void of dollar signs. I then flashed back to how their entire house ate since we were babies. They rarely, if ever, ate out at a restaurant. The menus they’re accustomed to are mostly Chinese takeout foldings or a large board above a fast food counter. How could they recognize pricing without dollar signs? How can anyone learn fine dining etiquette when socio-politically confined to a neighborhood with no fine dining? Especially when the majority of their meals outside of home are prepared behind a bulletproof window.

Now before the Jack & Jill’s who frequent Minton’s and Philippe get their ascots in a bunch, they should never forget that Blacks who can afford to eat outside of their homes are a minority within the minority.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a customer being made to feel at home. It is the establishment’s responsibility to make clear whether the vibe is their living room or dining area. It’s the customer’s job to read the room.

Some years after the family brunch, I spent a half summer brand managing for a massive new Black-owned Brooklyn restaurant. I was brought in to help manifest the owner’s dream of their car garage-size eatery becoming synonymous with four-star dining in NYC. The more the brass targeted their employees when discussing necessary changes, the more I saw that a business cannot change its culture with only a new paint job. They wanted to be perceived alongside staples like Buttermilk Channel and Mercer Kitchen, yet were blind to the fact that they were painting mixed messages. You can’t build a four or five-star dining atmosphere when the majority of your servers: 1) List Applebee’s as their last employment in hospitality, and 2) Don’t ever dine out on their personal time. Your best server possesses intuitiveness and experience. Moreover, a true fine diner can detect Spanx being sold as natural curves. The great irony is that the mirage will inevitably be exposed by the one for which it was intended.

You’d think TRUE Kitchen and Kocktails was a table-clothed establishment featuring a Michelin-decorated chef renown for reduction-drizzled innovations. Instead, the menu is pillared by African-American favorites like blackened and deep fried seafood, peach cobbler, yams and of course that Felix and Oscar-winning pair of chicken & waffle. There’s even a specialty dish of fried chicken and Moët champagne. Oh, also the frozen cocktails come with personal D’USSE, Hennessy and Patrón bottles. Now, if you had to match one universal Black dance to the aforementioned menu items, twerking would be a glove fit. Kevin Kelley directed those with uncontrollable urges to shake what their mother gifted towards one of the local nightclubs. This restaurateur too was delivering mixed messages. It’s unfair to invite Black people past a security guard, into an establishment with a DJ blasting trap music and expect the same energy as Mr. Chow.

Since the incident at TRUE, the restaurant’s Yelp page has been inundated with one-star reviews. So much that Yelp has since restricted any additional action towards TRUE indefinitely. Curious of Kelley’s reaction to the backlash, I followed every post interview and statement. “I’m mindful of how we all look as people,” he told TMZ. “I’m not saying [twerking isn’t] the proper way to present the culture when you’re dancing and having a good time at a club. But I am saying it’s an improper way to present our culture in my restaurant.”

Let’s work backwards. Where I stand with Mr. Kelley is that there is a time and a place for everything. There are countless environments where twerking is not only allowed but encouraged: hookah lounge, pool party, club. (Are we still in a pandemic?) Folks remaining seated where there isn’t a dance floor while consuming appetizers and entrées is a fairly civil expectation. Look, I get it: Music’s effect can be visceral, spiritual even. But if you’re in the middle of a Broadway musical and the tunes get good, is it appropriate to start dancing in the aisles? The song for the bride and groom’s first dance also leads your favorite ratchet playlist. Do you: A) Join them on dance floor and brandish Thee Stallion knee cartilage or B) Chair dance until it’s appropriate to drop it like the police are coming? (Also why is trap rap the only dance music Black folks act as if they can’t enjoy without actually dancing? If the dinner DJ’s throwback set includes MJ’s “Beat It,” you wouldn’t stand up and start moonwalking past neighboring tables. That would be bad.)

What concerned me about Kelly’s TMZ statement is him saying he’s mindful of how both women and his race are perceived when patrons twerk. He also said a woman devalues herself whenever she twerks. First off, WTF?! Second, the respectability of his male customers shouldn’t depend on whether or not women dance. Kelley needs to hold men to a higher standard. Furthermore, it appears that he’s mostly concerned with the optics of twerking from an outsider’s lens. “How we all look as a people,” eludes to him being embarrassed by the potential of outsider judgement towards African-American women twerking. As if the dance is a dirty action that should be kept confined to segregated Black circles — at the very least, hidden from customers of other races. Being ashamed of your culture is a deeper psychological issue. That’s the White gaze Toni Morrison spoke so fiercely on.

The Black community’s dining issues will improve when both our percentages of diners and premium eateries are competitive to our race counterparts — a much larger elephant to mount. In the meantime, the Black restaurateur and patron each must take a look in the mirror. The owner must be clear on what setting they are offering their people. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a customer being made to feel at home. It is the establishment’s responsibility to make clear whether the vibe is their living room or dining area. It’s the customer’s job to read the room. Also to adhere to the vision of a Black business (even if said vision is still a bit blurry). The last thing it needs is public defacement at the hands of its base. That makes for one less Black business and more Black dollars into other culture’s communities to not be returned. So let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot. In fact, when in any dining area, best to keep both feet off the furniture. And for heaven’s sake, tip like an adult.

Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer, Brooklynite and 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Lab fellow.

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