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Debate heats up over Steak 48 restaurant’s new dress code and $100 minimum tabs

Social media exploded with reaction to the policies. Some branded the restaurant chain insensitive.

A bar at Steak 48 restaurant as it looked before its opening in September 2020. The restaurant had been ready to open in spring 2020 but was delayed by the pandemic.
A bar at Steak 48 restaurant as it looked before its opening in September 2020. The restaurant had been ready to open in spring 2020 but was delayed by the pandemic.Read moreMICHAEL KLEIN / Staff

Steak 48, an upscale Center City steakhouse, has unleashed debate after posting dress-code and minimum-spending policies, fueling some accusations that they are directed at Black people.

The Phoenix-based restaurant, which said it spent $7.5 million to open at Broad and Spruce Streets in September 2020, said in a statement that the $100-per-person food-and-beverage minimum and 16-point list of verboten fashions were implemented “to ensure that each guest enjoys the total experience of food, service, and atmosphere.”

The dress code was posted this week on its website for restaurants in Houston, Charlotte, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and on signs near the door. The company contended that it wants to uphold “the same standard business-casual dress code policy for dinner service across all our fine-dining properties.”

It was not clear if any prospective patron has been turned away. Through representatives, the company has declined to elaborate on what inspired the policies.

Steak 48′s dress code is arguably the most explicit among Philadelphia restaurants, where such signs are rare. Forbidden fashions include “sweatshirts or T-shirts with large images, screen printing or large logos, large writing or characters,” “bustier tops, corset tops, bandeaux tops, or tube tops unless each is worn under a waist-length jacket,” and “excessively frayed or torn clothing.”

The $100 minimum tabs, which cover food and drinks but not the 18% minimum tip on parties of five or more people, are in effect at the Steak 48 locations in Philadelphia and Chicago.

As restaurants emerge from the pandemic, some have instituted automatic gratuities to help frazzled staff and are serving fixed-price menus to bolster their bottom lines.

Comments flooded Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram after photos of Steak 48′s dress code were shared. Some accused the restaurant of racial profiling, while others took a cheekier approach — even pointing out the “touch of Velveeta” in the mac and cheese.

Steak 48 was intended as a high-ticket experience from Day One. Executives told The Inquirer in September 2020 that it was aiming at a $120 check average, in line with other high-end steakhouses in town.

Party promoter Mike Jackson said the $100 minimum did not bother him because that is how much it costs to dine in similar establishments. He said the dress code was “a bit much. If I’m going out to a nice dinner, I’m not dressing like that. But I’m not judging anyone who does. They’re coming out, they want to have a good time. I think of our buddy Allen Iverson when he went out to eat; that’s how he dressed.”

Chaka Fattah Jr., a marketing consultant, said he believes that the dress code is “too detailed and will be unfairly enforced, affecting minorities disproportionally.” Nonblack customers at other popular restaurants are not turned away for wearing similar fashions, he said, adding that he would not return to dine at Steak 48.

“We know what it is,” said Carmena Ayo-Davies, a local publicist who thinks that the policies target Black patrons. “We have to know when we are not invited to the party. We are not saying they are racist, but it seems that that particular message is targeting a certain group.”

Anthony Henderson, a celebrity fashion stylist, said he found the policies offensive. “I also believe that since the death of George Floyd and the conviction of the cop, everyone will be nitpicking at the Black community. Every culture views clothing differently. … We have to accept people for their individuality, no matter what their skin tone or color is.”

A representative of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association said the trade group does not comment on how individuals run their operations. Steak 48 is not a PRLA member.

Some see the value of the stated policy.

“They’re selling a lifestyle,” publicist Quiana Montgomery said. “They’re setting a tone. They’re trying to separate, ‘What makes me better than Outback? What makes me better than Ruth’s Chris? This is not only the quality of food but when you come in these doors, we’re providing a certain lifestyle, so we want you to be dressed.’ … Everybody is a certain way. Everybody has a certain look. I don’t take it personal. There are so many things in this world that we take personal against our people, but from a PR perspective, I think they’re trying to be different.”

David Alexander Jenkins, who held an event at Steak 48 earlier this year, said, “I think we need more restaurants to say, ‘Here’s what the rules are.’ I can recall a time when if you were a gentleman and you were inappropriately dressed in a restaurant, they provided you with an oversized jacket which had the restaurant’s logo plastered all over it,” said.

Jenkins said he found the $100 minimum “absurd. Most of the people who are extraordinarily wealthy in this city tend to be slightly older and tend to not eat so much. We’re in a health-conscious society, so people will share a plate. It is common in high-end establishments that people will split plates with their spouses [and] with their children. … That has backfired. I think most of the people who they wish weren’t there who are fighting and doing things that are inappropriate also are spending a lot of money.”

Restaurant dress codes made the news on May 22 when NBA legend Dominique Wilkins was turned away from an Atlanta restaurant, Le Bilboquet, contending that his race was an issue. “In my many years in the world,” he tweeted, “I’ve eaten at some of the greatest restaurants in the world, but never have I felt prejudice or been turned away because of the color of my skin, until today in #atlanta in @LeBilboquetAtl #turnedawaybecauseimblack.”,

The restaurant initially countered in a statement that he was turned away because he was wearing designer casual clothing and cited “consistent complaints from our patrons regarding other guests’ wardrobe choices.”

The restaurant later apologized and promised to institute diversity, equity, and inclusion training while working to enforce its dress code more fairly.

From the start, Steak 48 quickly became a hot destination among Black restaurant-goers, who chronicled their visits on Instagram and Twitter.

“It’s very trendy and in the Black community, people love to jump on things that are trends,” said Bryant “B.Y.” Jennings, a professional heavyweight boxer from Philadelphia with a sizable online following.

Jennings believes that Steak 48 attracted people who otherwise would not patronize high-end establishments. ”When it’s high-end, you have to act high-end,” said Jennings, who did not see racial overtones in Steak 48′s decision.

Jennings cited a video, shot in March 2021 and hosted on YouTube, of a dining room fight among women as an example of misbehavior. The women shown in the video do not appear to be wearing outfits that would violate the dress code.

“You could see the writing on the wall that they were going to do something down the line because they just opened up and … all of a sudden there [were] fights, drama, and all kinds of stuff,” said Baba Taiye Renfrow of Montgomery County. “And it started to steer people away, including myself.”

Jennings, as did other commenters, said he had wished that the Black community would support the city’s few Black-owned destination restaurants, like Booker’s in West Philadelphia and South on North Broad Street. Two popular eateries, Ms. Tootsie’s on South Street, and KeVen Parker’s stand at Reading Terminal, closed in January after Parker’s death.

Jennings said Steak 48 was just trying to save its business by announcing rules. Posting a sign, he said, puts patrons on notice.