The Cute Gardener and I eat out at least once a week dabbling from low brow to high brow across the Los Angeles food spectrum. Dining together is one of our biggest joys in life and in fact, one of the contributions to our love. We consider ourselves the perfect customers. We never raise a stink if a water glass has droplets on it from the dishwasher and are typically forgiving if service is less than par preferring to give a restaurant or a waiter the benefit of a doubt. I also prefer to write about pleasant experiences when I pen culinary essays and articles and will traditionally eschew a negative review, replacing it with a humorous essay or simply write about something else every time we are left with a bad taste in our mouth. But some things in life need to be stated, even when they are difficult, frightening, uncomfortable and awkward, and today is one of those times.
A few weeks back we had a reservation at Mastro’s steak house in Beverly Hills to fill a long awaited craving for high-class filet mignon and New York strip. We made our reservation as usual through Open Table and were looking forward to shelling out a large chunk of money for a special night of world class meat and all the typical fixings found in a joint esteemed as such: sides with lots of cream, cocktails that could hold up to a rich lobster bisque, classic appetizers of rare beef, an impeccable bread basket and pristine customer service — all things one would expect after having similar experiences at places such as Fleming’s, BOA, and Ruth’s Chris.
When we arrived at 5:30 (extremely early for Los Angeles thus presenting us with a non-packed restaurant) we were quickly seated in an odd side room containing less than 15 tables near a glass case storing wine bottles. We were a little stunned as we had been excited about the presence of a grand piano in the main dining room, knew it was so early that the dining room couldn’t possibly have been filled already, and had made our reservations through Open Table which typically assures great seating and preferred treatment to loyal food scene patrons. But we shrugged off our confusion still excited about our meal.
Within a half-an-hour our room was almost full and as we looked around at our other dining companions, we realized that every party contained one or more Asian people except for the lone table of two African American folks. My boyfriend who is Asian American looked at me askance and asked, “Hmm, do you think there’s something racist going on here?”
Hearing someone I love ask that question made my heart sink; especially the CG who is one of those guys who is always perfectly diplomatic when others run hot under the collar. For him to notice or think something like this was huge and it made an instant stamp of ire on my guts. As I looked around the room, and continued to see the same occurrence throughout the rest of the evening (only minorities seated in our room while many white people and extremely hot, plastic-enhanced women continued to be seen standing in the waiting area but inevitably seated elsewhere) my stomach continued to sour. We bit our tongues and ate our over-the-top and indulgent food but inside my thoughts were racing.
Really? Was this really happening right before my very own eyes? Racism in Los Angeles in a restaurant in 2014? In a city known for its sophisticated eaters of all nationalities? In a city that prides itself on being a cultural melting pot? In Beverly Hills where celebrities of every color drop hefty amounts of dough on a daily basis? I didn’t want to believe it … and when a younger white male pair was finally seated next to us I felt a momentary rush of relief until I saw them holding hands beneath the table as one of them received a slice of birthday cake and I realized that they, too, were considered a side room worthy minority for being gay. Whether you call it racism, preferential-ism, homophobia or just plain blatant segregation –something was clearly going on right in front of our faces and no one seemed to bat an eye.
When we left, we noticed a hefty white woman in her fifties with her pre-teen daughter standing on the curb waiting for their car service and joking with the valet as if she were a regular customer, saying “You know I never miss my $500 blow out appointment for my hair!”
I couldn’t sleep that night. I have never been privy to this kind of treatment before. I am your average American white girl — a blue eyed brunette mutt with a little German, French and Dutch thrown in. I have experienced preferential treatment on the other end of the spectrum as a woman, getting perks or let into bars first because of my gender and single status, but never the opposite. My soul hurt for my partner who, unfortunately, has been exposed to racism at various points in his lifetime. I felt enraged the next morning thinking about the nearly $400 I had given to this establishment. I also felt a little bit scared, like I wanted to scream something from the top of a mountain about this treatment, but because I didn’t have actual physical evidence or proof, it was something I could scream but that could potentially be squashed out, ridiculed or disbelieved. Then I felt ashamed and embarrassed at myself that I was even questioning these things. I was clearly a part of something very wrong yet I was afraid to open my mouth? I went through the rigmarole of submission, shame, and repression — all being the very emotions designed to perpetuate this kind of inappropriate and wildly backwards behavior in the first place. The next night I had dreams of the rich, white mafia of Beverly Hills taking out a hit on me and even felt a little afraid of talking about my experience.
We went online and researched to see if there was anything else written about this in the world of online reviews. We actually found a few things:
After multiple conversations with the CG, I asked him, “How is this really possible in this day and age? I understand that racism and other isms exist but in a restaurant setting in a bustling metropolis? I mean, how do seating and wait staff get told to perform this kind of obvious segregation?”
“It’s just like when you see a line at a club and one is for all the common people and one is for the VIP,” he said. “They probably get away with this kind of separation by saying only let in our rich, white customers into this area who expect a certain kind of treatment and make sure their experience is filled with like-minded people just like a club stresses letting the prettiest, most sexy people in first. Because there are sports stars and celebrities of every color, they will certainly get seated in the good room thus allowing Mastro’s something to point out to prove they aren’t doing what they so deliberately are.”
Regardless of whether or not we could explain to ourselves why or why not this behavior could be happening right under our noses in our liberal city, we were still both bothered a week later and decided we needed to say something. He put up a very short and simple Yelp and I posted a similar piece on my Facebook page. By the end of the day, I had a large showing of support and was encouraged by many friends and family to write about this on my food blog. Normally not a place for political rants or personal essays that step out of the confines of food, I felt the issue was important enough to merit mentioning. My life in food is documented here regularly and is full of whimsical and joyous prose on my adventures in eating with the love of my life. But this experience made me realize that sometimes things are worth stepping out of the box for and that includes sharing authentic stories that reflect our common humanity. I didn’t ask for my steak to be served with a side of discrimination but that’s what I got. I wouldn’t want anyone else to experience the same thing that I did and there are plenty of other upscale steakhouses in the world that I would rather give my money to in the future.