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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Patrons and privilege

For someone who is perennially sober, I have very bad luck when it comes to bars. Last Friday night, I tried to meet some of the local Chowhounds at a new bar called Anvil. I say tried, because I was turned away at the door. I was politely told that they were at capacity that evening (no, there wasn't a line behind me), but would welcome me another time. When I reported this to the other Chowhounds who visited Anvil that night (most of who were quite enthusiastic about their drinks), most were quite mystified by the event. Hypotheses ranged from my mistaking a different bar for Anvil to having some mischevious client posing as the Anvil doorman to turn me away as a practical joke.

I would be nonplussed by the incident, were it not for the fact that I have experienced being barred at the Houston trendy bar scene before, and it was quite ugly. I was to meet some friends at a midtown Houston bar called Pub Fiction, but when I walked up the door, was told that I was wearing inappropriate pants. I apologized for not being aware of the dress code, and inquired what was appropriate. I was told that it changes from night to night. As I spent the next hour in vain trying to contact the people inside who may think that I am standing them up, I observed that some people were going in and out in ratty tattered shorts, and sandals with nary a concern, while others were being barred even though they were dressed rather nicely. I then made the connection that there is a very strong correlation between the racial makeup of the people being barred and those being let through.

I found plenty of comments online describing racial profiling going on at Pub Fiction. Speaking with bartender friends, I learned that bar owners in these neighborhoods do instruct their personnel to weed out people based on their ethnic makeup, because they fear that if a bar becomes perceived as catering specifically to a type of minority, they'll lose the more lucrative mainstream market. To which I understand the balkanization that "gay bars" undergo, but apparently, there are "black bars", "Asian bars", and other such liquid ghettos all over the place. Perhaps I have grown accustomed to the English pub concept which acts as a central gathering place for all members of the community. Incidentally, I am loathe to invoke discrimination as an explanation, as the phenomenon can be rather subtle. Defenders of Pub Fiction have blamed me for not dressing up appropriately for the "scale" of the establishment.

This ties in with a recent discussion on the Houston Chowhound forum asking as to the definition of a "high end" restaurant. Is it just the food? I daresay it really is the trappings, pretentious as they may be. After all, exclusivity refers to someone being excluded, be they men who refuse to wear jackets as they eat, or perhaps colored folk who should be serving not being served. Many modern restaurateurs have eschewed the trappings as being archaic, adopting more casual attitudes to bring good food and drink to more people.

Incidentally, this story has a happy ending. On the public Chowhound forum, Anvil proprietor Robert Huegel openly acknowledged that they had to close the bar for a short while to new customers as they are working out capacity problems, apologized for it, and offered me a free drink if I would give them another chance.

All told, a very classy response to the situation. Kudos.


  1. FYI, the houston chowhound board is actually not public. i'm sorry about the mishap on friday. it would have been great enjoying a drink with you

  2. I don't approve of Yellowcarding or Browncarding or Pinkcarding at any establishment and won't be paying a visit to Pub Fiction at all. I'll do most of my drinking at The Flying Saucer Sugar Land.