The experience was humiliating. Along with my kids, my husband, and my in-laws, I was turned away from Gatsby's, a month-old restaurant in Davie. Indeed the manager refused to allow us to even cross the threshold before informing us we weren't going to be seated. Why? Not because we weren't dressed appropriately, or because there was a long wait for a table -- in fact there was hardly anybody in the place on this recent Sunday evening. No, we were forbidden entry because not everyone in my party was over the age of 21.
On the face of it, this doesn't sound like such a big deal. Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tell me that while restaurateurs are not permitted to serve anyone under the age of 21 an alcoholic beverage, in all other matters the proprietors are allowed to set their own guidelines for their establishments. And sure, resulting rules like "No one under 21 allowed" are not arbitrary. Gatsby's, which also has a location in Boca Raton with the same policy, serves what the employees call "upscale appetizers, pastas, salads," and so on. The owners clearly want a hip, nicely dressed crowd. They obviously don't want kids of any age. But whereas other restaurateurs will discourage parents from bringing children via the atmosphere, the kind of fare, or -- and this is the biggest hint -- the lack of a high chair or booster seat, Gatsby's has chosen to state its intentions at the door. (Not, it should be noted, over the phone. We had called beforehand, but no one told us about the age limit, or we wouldn't have gone in the first place.)
So? If the Gatsby's people require customers to don a shirt and shoes, get yourself to Payless before seeking entrance. A jacket and tie? Men's Wearehouse has a nice selection.
But you also can think of it this way: Replace "No one under 21 allowed" with "No Jews allowed." Or "No blacks allowed." Or "No Cubans allowed." Suddenly policies like this one smack as loudly of discrimination as an open hand against a cheek does of domestic violence.
Of course Gatsby's is not breaking the law any more than, say, a club on South Beach that refuses to allow someone with the wrong look to come inside. But on the flip side, neither do the restaurateurs have the unqualified support of the law. Simply put, no state edicts forbid minors from entering any bars or restaurants.
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Nightclubs are a slightly different story, and are not allowed to welcome those younger than age eighteen. However, clubs seeking to circumvent this restriction can get themselves reclassified as a restaurant; as long as 51 percent of their revenues come from food sales, they'll qualify. Then age constraints become moot. In fact that's precisely what Club Atlantis in Fort Lauderdale did when the city commission there voted three to one to raise the bar, so to speak, to age 21 for club attendees. Rather than quietly abiding what he considered a draconian measure, Club Atlantis owner Michael Kent immediately sought -- and won -- a temporary restaurant permit known as an SRX license. That singular triumph was recently followed by another more comprehensive one: A couple of weeks ago, County Judge Fred J. Berman ruled that the city ordinance banning those under the age of 21 from attending clubs is unconstitutional. (Miami Beach City Commission, are you listening?)
Naysayers will note that I am upset because my maternal instincts were roused when my children were bounced. They also will point out that I shouldn't have attempted to bring the kids to an upscale restaurant anyway, that young 'uns don't know how to behave in such places, they ruin the ambience for other diners, they don't have table manners.... Spare me. I'm not just angered on behalf of my family or other gastronomically inclined parents who like to dine with their children. I'm also perturbed on the behalf of teenagers who confront these kinds of policies daily, whether or not they are explicitly stated on the door. It's been a little while, but I still remember the frustration of dealing with restaurant employees who treated me as if I'd be running out on the bill. If I found my confrontation with Gatsby's smirky, condescending manager mortifying, imagine how a pair of seventeen-year-olds on a date might feel stuck in the same situation. My advice, should it happen? Do what Charles Thompson did to Toni Takarada when he felt that he was the victim of racism: Call the cops and file a report on reverse ageism.
Restaurants do retain the right to refuse service to anyone. But since no law either explicitly supports or knocks down a regulation like the one Gatsby's is vehemently enforcing, whether or not it is discrimination is up for a court to decide. All it takes is one case.