I was fascinated by media reports emanating from Britain and Europe last week alleging that two exclusive restaurants in Paris “discriminate” against “unattractive” customers by shoving them to the back or in obscure areas, while providing seats in the front to comelier diners. The two establishments in question -- 'Café Marly' (which overlooks the courtyard of the world-famous Louvre museum) and 'Le Georges' (located on the rooftop of the Centre Pompidou) -- are both owned by a restaurateur-businessman named Gilbert Costes and his brother.
The Le Canard Enchainé newspaper, quoting former wait-staff at these eateries, reported that management ordered employees to seat people strictly according to their looks. "The good-looking ones are led to the good places, where they can be easily seen," a former waitress told the paper. "As for the non-good-looking ones, it is imperative that they be dispatched to the corners of the room." (Incidentally, Le Canard Enchainé is described as “satirical” newspaper, although it does a lot of serious investigative reporting.)
At any rate, this bizarre and questionable policy raises some peculiar scenarios -- for example, at Café Marly, hostesses are discouraged from taking table reservations by phone, since there's no way to tell what the caller looks like. Only when the customers arrive in person do they face a kind of “mini-judgment day.”
One also has to wonder what happens when an ugly husband brings along his beautiful wife (does she get a good seat in front, while he is banished into the shadows?). When a former waitress failed to abide by this “looks” rule, her manager admonished her thusly: “What are you thinking? What are those 'non-attractives' doing at that table? The system is not that complicated … This is very bad for our image!” Indeed, Gilbert Costes himself apparently upheld this policy, reportedly he would appear at restaurants himself to instruct his underlings on “proper seating” procedures. One must also assume that since standards of beauty vary from culture to culture (and even from person to person within those cultures), Costes’ personal tastes played a large role in determining who was “in” and who was “out.”
“He [Costes] drummed these house rules into us, and he was very proud of them because he came up with them,” the unnamed waitress said. "There are beautiful people, you put them here. There are not-beautiful people, you put them there - it's really not that complicated," she quoted him as saying. Even restaurant employees were subject to these rules -- reportedly, wait-staff also had to be pleasing to the eye, slender, at least 5-foot-7 in height and under the age of 30.
As an interesting aside, celebrities and the super-wealthy did not have to pass the “looks” test -- presumably, well-heeled (but less than attractive) luminaries like Bill Gates, Barbra Streisand, Whoopi Goldberg and Keith Richard would receive the finest seats and top-flight obsequious service at these places during their jaunts through the City of Light.
But the Costes are hardly alone in their preference for the “beautiful people.” Earlier this summer, the American clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF) was condemned for seeking to exclusively hire "good-looking people" for their flagship store in Paris. However, while Messieurs Costes' and ANF's policies are certainly tacky, unkind and upsetting, it's not clear that they have committed any “crime” nor even violated anyone's rights. And if Costes did overstep his legal bounds, it would be quite difficult to prove.
Slimane Laoufi, a member of Defenseur des Droits (Defender of Rights), a French anti-discrimination activist organization, told The Local newspaper: "Discriminating against someone’s looks is just the same as discriminating against someone on the grounds of health or whether they are handicapped. They are all forbidden." I am not sure if high-end (or even middle-end or low-end) restaurants in New York have such unofficial seating policies, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if such realities existed.
I recall during a birthday celebration at a top-flight restaurant in midtown Manhattan, I noticed a rather 'large” family of four (all members were quite obese) entered. A horrified-looking maître d' quickly scurried over and “escorted” them to a table far, far in the back (where no one else, neither pedestrians strolling by outside nor most of the other diners, could lay eyes on them.) But, I wonder, are such practices really 'illegal'?
As for les frères Costes, they did not deny service to unattractive people (which, of course, would clearly represent explicit discrimination and trigger lawsuits) -- instead, they “classified” such diners and hid them away in the back somewhere. Reprehensible, yes, but hardly a major felony.
In a way, high-end restaurants like Les Georges, by their very existence and lofty prices, automatically “discriminate” against the poor and the lower middle-class who can't afford their upscale grubs anyway (welcome to capitalism, ladies and gentlemen). In the United States, reports often emerge about black customers being mistreated at bars, nightclubs and restaurants -- ranging from rude or hostile service to long waiting periods before being allowed to enter the premise to outright rejection (a blatantly criminal act). However, that’s very different from what’s occurring at these Parisian restaurants.
In a broader context, this sad situation highlights something far more important and profound -- namely, that the biggest prejudice in the world is not leveled at blacks nor Jews nor Asians nor Hispanics nor the disabled. Rather, it is our automatic dislike for those we perceive to be “ugly” (regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality nor income). And no amount of government legislation, nor social activism, nor protest demonstrations will ever change this fundamental aspect of human nature. In New York City of the early 21st century -- commonly described as a 'progressive, liberal, enlightened' metropolis -- one's God-given looks influence and determine a large portion of our daily lives and happiness. Standards of beauty may change and evolve from one generation to the other, but such standards do indeed exist and are practically written in concrete.
Not surprisingly, these oppressive attitudes fall hardest on women. I am often surprised by how women of great intelligence, educational attainment and material success remain obsessed (sometimes insanely so) with their physical appearance. But this is because women know very well that they are judged principally (often SOLELY) on their looks -- not only by men, but by other ladies as well. I am, of course, guilty of this bias myself -- earlier I alluded to Barbra Streisand and Whoopi Goldberg as being “ugly,” but since they have attained such huge success that they do not care anymore.
But consider the plight of women in more 'serious' pursuits like politics. Hilary Clinton (along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel) are probably the two most politically powerful women on earth – and both have been attacked for their looks over the years (a trait that has nothing remotely to do with their competence as lawmakers). In contrast, Sarah Palin was widely praised for her beauty and sexiness -- even from her most vitriolic detractors. Thus, the Costes of France are simply translating ancient attitudes into modern corporate policy -- and, sadly, they are not really doing anything wrong. As for me, next time I go to Paris -- I'll eat at a nice little cafe and have a cheap baguette and cappuccino. After all, I couldn't afford 'Le Georges' nor could I get a decent seat there.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.