I’ve been thinking a lot about accessibility lately. And it seems like the restaurant world is, too: The Washington City Paper recently published a great, long-form piece by Laura Hayes about the lack of accessibility in D.C.’s restaurants. Today, Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema announced that he will start including accessibility information in his reviews, after years of being asked about it by his readers. Including information like this in restaurant reviews is important: critics like Sietsema can make or break restaurants, they send business to restaurants’ doors, help fill their tables, and can take their brand to new heights (or severely tarnish it). When a critic slams a particular dish, or a negative review is published, restaurant owners often scramble to make amends and right their wrongs. Food critics wield considerable power. And when they make an effort to call out the ways an establishment is or is not accessible to people with disabilities, it can actually have the effect of making more establishments accessible. It incentivizes accessibility, which is something to be applauded.
There is a tremendous amount of overlap in accessibility for people with disabilities and fat people. And there are plenty of fat people with disabilities who have to worry about whether you have a ramp or your “accessible” entrance to your fine dining restaurant is next to the dumpster, or whether your restaurant is so loud they cannot hear their dining companions, or the lighting is so dim they cannot see their friend signing to them at dinner, on top of worrying about whether you’re going to stick them in a too-small booth. But even for those of us who don’t otherwise have to worry about accessibility due to a disability, if a restaurant’s tables are too cramped for a wheelchair to navigate easily, it’s probably going to be a nightmare for a fat person to find their way to their table without a few accidents, too. Same goes for most seating and restrooms.
I was struck by a quote from the City Paper article, from Cara Liebowitz:
“There’s this stereotype that we’re sad pitiful people who sit at home collecting benefits,” Liebowitz says. “We contribute to the economy like everyone else. If you’re not accessible or your attitude isn’t welcoming, you’re losing business … I hate having to frame it in terms of business.”
This is true of fat people, too. The average American is fat. We are employees, we contribute to society, we want to spend money on nice dinners out sometimes, and restaurants lose business by not being accessible to us. It’s also maddening to repeatedly have to break this down into economic terms for restaurants and other businesses to get them to include us, because we’re people. We deserve clothing in our size, because we are human beings, and like to wear clothing that both fits us and expresses some of our personal style. Yet, we consistently have to make the point that we’re a great money-maker to clothing companies. And restaurants, yes, they’re losing our business too by not being accessible to fat people. But we’re also just people. We want to be able to have brunch without spending time trying to find pictures of the restaurant’s seating online, or celebrate our anniversaries and promotions and special occasions at dinner without having to the metal arms of a chair digging into your thighs to such a degree that you leave with bruises. We can argue economics. But what it comes down to is simply acknowledging our humanity and that we exist in our communities.
So, while this progress is great, I want to challenge food critics to go a step further. Start talking about size accessibility, too. Don’t stop with door widths and wheelchair ramps. Go further. Go harder. Because you have power — and you can use that power to make the world more accessible for more people. And the great thing about accessibility is that no one loses when spaces become more accessible; everyone wins. Businesses get more business. More people are able to enjoy a restaurant. It works out for all involved.
And what’s striking to me about size accessibility is that it is so brain-numbingly easy to address that I think it would actually shock restaurant owners, if they actually tried. Here are five simple things restaurants can do to be more size accessible.
1. Fuck right off with high-top tables.
I understand that when you’re designing or updating your restaurant, you may have a certain look and ambiance you’re aiming for. A D.C. restaurant Sietsma noted in his article had mostly high-top tables asked the owner about it, and was told that this decision was made to evoke tapas bars in Spain. Another restaurant owner insisted that “people get to know each other better” when they’re at high-tops.
But here’s the truth about high-tops: Most people hate them. Short people hate them, because their feet dangle precariously off the tall chairs, after they struggle to hop into them. Fat people hate them, because their butts often end up partially hanging off the chair uncomfortably. I usually end up doing the High-Top Lean, where I use my chair more as pole to lean against while my feet are on the floor. (Basically, standing.) People who carry purses hate them because where the hell do you put your purse?! Won’t someone please think of a purse-hook?! Maybe some people like them, but I have yet to talk to anyone who actually prefers high-tops over regular-height tables with regular-height chairs.
The same restaurant owner who wanted to evoke Spain with his high-tops also said they were important because “conversation is more intimate” when people are more or less at eye level with each other. I am pretty sure ALL TABLES ACHIEVE THIS, because people are SITTING DOWN. You do the food, restaurants. Leave the intimate conversation to me.
But the truth is that while high-top tables may possibly evoke Spanish tapas (exactly what Red Robin was going for with their high-tops, I bet!) or force people to get more intimate with each other as they awkwardly hoist themselves onto the stupidest tall chairs ever forged into existence, they are not accessible for many people. When your restaurant’s seating is excluding people who use wheelchairs, people with mobility issues, elderly people who may not be able to get onto a high-top chair or sit comfortably, short people, people with purses… that is a lot of people. So fuck right off with high-tops.
I mean, maybe include a few, for the minority that likes them, if that is your wish. But please, for love of accessibility, do not offer high-tops as your primary seating.
2. If you must have booths, do not bolt the table to the ground.
Let’s talk about booths for a minute! When I was a kid, I loved booths in restaurants. They were so cozy! So fun! And I loved sitting on the inside, it made me feel secure. As a teenager and twentysomething on the smaller end of the fat spectrum, I loved nothing more than sprawling out in a booth in a diner with my friends, ordering milkshakes and sharing fries and having the best late-night-diner conversations one could have. But as I got older, and put on weight, my relationship with booths soured. Now, I actively avoid them. My ideal restaurant only has non-high-top tables, with chairs I can push in and out as much as I desire.
Booths are terrible for fat people because they pre-determine how much space a body in the booth can take up. There is only so much distance between the table and the back of the chair. Sometimes booths are fine for me. Sometimes they’re a bit of tight squeeze — not ideal, but I can manage. Sometimes they are painful, and I mean that literally, they hurt me. And sometimes I physically cannot fit in them.
But I understand that some people like booths, and some restaurants want to provide them. One simple thing a restaurant can do to make a booth more accessible to fat people is simply not bolting the table to the floor. If I can move the table, that gives me the flexibility to move the table out, pull it in, compromise with my dining companion so the table is in a serviceable position for both of us, move it out of my way as I get into and out of the booth… it’s easy, because it involves NOT DOING SOMETHING. Restaurants don’t have to buy bolts, hire someone to secure the table to the floor with those bolts, and it makes it easier for your staff to pull the table out and clean under the table, too. Everyone wins!
Well, not everyone, because the truth is that booths will still be troublesome for some fat diners. Some people won’t fit in them. But if you insist on booths in your restaurant, you can accommodate more diners with those booths by simply not bolting the fucking table to the goddamn floor. No one is going to steal your table. I promise. Let it be free!
(Oh, and just because I have seen this several times, you should also not attach the table to a wall, because that’s even worse. Don’t do this.)
3. Provide sturdy chairs without arms.
You would think this would be easy, but it’s the biggest source of anxiety when I dine out. Do the chairs have arms?! Chairs are one of my favorite things in the world, but also my nemesis. I will spend tragic amounts of time online researching the chairs at a dining establishment before making reservations. I’ll read pages and pages of Yelp reviews for inside info about the chair situation. I’ll go deep on Google Images trying to find pictures of the chairs. I have literally called restaurants and asked them whether their chairs have arms before making a reservation.
And if I want to dine outside on a lovely spring evening with my husband? Fuck me, because this seems to be the only goddamn chair restaurants with outside seating provide:
And I’m happy to report that I have only broken one chair in the history of my life: I broke one of my mom’s fragile old dining room chairs that I had been slamming myself into for years. One day, I slammed into the chair as I normally did, and I heard the unmistakable crack of wood splitting. And the thing collapsed beneath me. That was embarrassing, but you know what would be worse? Breaking a chair in a restaurant full of people, in public, and not at my mom’s house. I live in fear of that happening. So, I also need a sturdy chair. All fat people do. If your chair is plastic or made of hundred-year-old reclaimed wood from a sunken ship, I’m probably not going to eat at your restaurant.
So, restaurants, this is an easy one: Provide sturdy chairs without arms. Again, everyone wins in the scenario, because most thin people don’t give a shit whether their chair has arms or not, and everyone’s bottom appreciates a good sturdy chair. This is one tiny little thing that matters more than you can possibly imagine. I can like a restaurant just fine but if it has sturdy chairs with no arms? I will stan that restaurant for life, go on Yelp and Facebook and make sure everyone knows about this great restaurant, and eat there so often you’ll be sick of me.
4. Be a little flexible.
Story time! Recently my in-laws visited and we all went out to dinner together. We had a reservation, but I did not make the reservation, and my father-in-law did not know to specify that his fat daughter-in-law has a pathological hatred of booths in restaurants. So, when we got to the restaurant and the hostess started walking us to our seat, my heart sank when I saw that not only were we being lead to a booth but we were being lead to a dreaded curved booth.
So, I knew looking at this booth, with its oversized rectangular table that this simply would not do. I had zero hope of being able to fit comfortably in this booth. I had to decide how to play it. I asked the hostess, “Is there any possibility we can get a table?” She said, no, we had been assigned this dumb fucking booth. I pointed to a table a mere 10 feet from us that was vacant and cleaned. I asked, “Can’t we just sit at that table?” She said, “I’ll get the manager.”
The manager stomped up, annoyed. I said, “We just want a table. Can we sit at that table?” He barked, “No, that table is for a party of 6 that’s coming in.” I asked, “Did they reserve that particular table? Can you just move us over there? Or can we wait for another table?” I was told no. ONLY THE BOOTH. I was near tears.
The manager’s elegant solution? He brought out a chair, and sat me at the end of the table, sticking out like some fat lonely island. Servers tripped over me all night and struggled to maneuver around me. And guess what? THERE WERE MULTIPLE VACANT TABLES.
Look, I watch Top Chef. I watched Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. I know that working in a restaurant is hard. I know you have a lot to juggle. I know that on a busy Friday night, you probably have your seating mapped out pretty tightly. But here’s the thing — I’m not asking you to do anything but be a little bit flexible so that I can sit at table where I’m comfortable and enjoy my meal. Restaurants are in the business of hospitality. So, I’m just asking you to be hospitable and not make me feel like a piece of shit when you try to make me sit somewhere I physically cannot fit. All I’m asking is that you make a momentary exception to your plan and move my party of 4 over to the table that’s right in front of our faces and think on your feet a little to accommodate a customer with a father-in-law who is going to buy a lot of your most expensive wine.
What I’m saying is that I understand that you have reasons why it’s annoying or inconvenient or logistically challenging to change up your seating on the spot, but I also want you to understand that it is not the customer’s problem to solve. It’s yours. So, grab your manager if you must, confer with your coworkers, go back to your host station and reexamine your seating chart, but solve the fucking problem. Because that is your job. And before anyone chimes in with, “But you’re asking so much and acting so entitled,” guess what?! I have a client-focused job and I have dealt with more ridiculous demands than you can imagine, and accommodated them with a smile on my face, because that is the nature of my business. They are paying customers, I make them happy. And a customer asking for a seat in which they can physically fit their body is not what I would consider asking for the moon. If you can deal with customers who put ketchup on their steaks and ask for so many substitutions they basically invent new dishes and people who stiff wait staff on tips, you can deal with being asked to provide a better seating option to a customer with a fat ass.
And if your seating arrangements are so inflexible that you cannot move a party from a booth to a table when it becomes clear that one of the people you’re seating cannot fit into the seat provided, you should at least train your staff to ASK WHAT KIND OF SEATING THEY PREFER before locking them into something like a curved booth. (Or, even better, don’t have curved booths.)
5. Consider us, and include us, in your restaurant’s business plan.
This is really the big thing about all kinds of accessibility. We’re part of your community. We’re part of the economy. We’re productive members of society. We have friends, and families, and spouses. We receive promotions, get engaged, have birthday parties. We’re part of this world, too, and we want to be included.
It seems strange and counterintuitive that restaurants would want to exclude fat people, since… well, fat people, they eat LOTS OF FOOD, am I right?! But it’s an exclusion that has filtered down from fine dining into every area of dining. When fine dining restaurants started installing high-top tables, that filtered down to your local gastropubs and fast-casual restaurants and Red Robins and local joints. When fancy restaurants started installing plush curved booths, that trend filtered down to less-fancy restaurants. The exclusion trickles down. Fine dining restaurants want wealthy, trendy patrons — it is assumed that those things go hand-in-hand with being thin. I’m not even sure the exclusion is intentional. I think restaurants work with designers with a certain vision of who their customers are in mind, and that person just happens to be thin, because is there anywhere that is not a discount buffet that considers fat people to be their target demographic? But it’s a decision that matters. They are the trendsetters.
But I’m a fat person, and I love food. I mean, obviously, AM I RIGHT?! (Kill me.) But I have a disposable income and no kids and I like to go out with my husband and try new cuisines and restaurants and really live that Double Income No Kids life. I’m an avid reader of restaurant reviews. I like to support local restaurants, especially ones that work with local vendors and farms. I dream of one day getting to try Minibar or Pineapple and Pearls. Like, if you asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I’d probably say, “Can you get a bitch a reservation at Three Blacksmiths?” (No, you cannot, they book like 6 months in advance.) And I want to be included! I want to be considered. I want to go, and enjoy your food, and have a great time, and then be able to tell everyone I know about the amazing meal I had at your restaurant.
I don’t want finding me a place to sit to be an emergency situation. And I don’t want to be difficult, or have to go online and write about how your manager was a dick to me when I asked for a more suitable seating option. I sure as hell don’t want to have to sit here and plead for you to acknowledge my existence by discussing the economics of including fat people in your business plan or explaining the logistics of chairs that should be common sense to anyone who deals with the public on a regular basis. Include fat people, and people with disabilities, and everyone betwixt in your plan from the beginning. And if you can’t, well, when you update, please think of us then. Or make small changes as you go. Invest in a ramp over that one small step to get into your restaurant, and then buy some chairs without arms for your patio.
There so so many simple, cost-effective things you can do to make your establishment more welcoming to more people, and restaurants just aren’t doing them. And because of that, I am asking food critics to make a note of it when a space is not inclusive. Because if you won’t listen to me standing in front of you meekly pleading for a chair that will not give me bruises, perhaps you’ll listen to a bad review.