For more than two years, D.C.-area food critics haven’t been able to get enough of El Sapo Cuban Social Club. The trendy, boisterous restaurant in Silver Spring, Maryland, has won over tastemakers with its island cuisine and festive vibes, landing on Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants list in 2019 and 2020, as well as on influential Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema’s 2019 list of best new restaurants.
Owner Raynold Mendizábal, who spent a decade establishing himself as a chef in D.C. before a move to Silver Spring to open Urban Butcher steakhouse in 2013, comes across in reviews of El Sapo as a confident host who knows how to lead a raucous dinner party. But, according to Yelp reviews, scores of customers who have entered the restaurant say they have been far less charmed — including multiple women who told Eater they felt Mendizábal exhibited condescending, dismissive, and disrespectful behavior toward them.
Taken individually, each of those interactions could be viewed as a blow-up over the misunderstandings that arise in a busy dining room. Viewed collectively, they tell a story of a volatile chef who seeks out confrontations with women, who fixates on enforcing his particular set of rules, and whose aggressive behavior brims with sexist undertones. While El Sapo boasts an overall rating of 3.5 out of five stars on Yelp, customer interactions with Mendizábal and his staff led to nearly 100 negative reviews on the platform that describe him as rude, argumentative, and, in more than one case, expressing racist views.
In the course of Eater’s reporting on the chef’s arguments with customers, a teenager who worked for Mendizábal in 2019 as a hostess at his now-closed Urban Butcher filed a civil lawsuit alleging that his behavior took a darker turn there: The then-minor, identified as Jane Doe in court documents, is accusing the 50-year-old of battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress for “routinely” sexually harassing her. In court documents filed March 4, the girl, 17 at the time, alleges Mendizábal regularly hugged her and kissed her on the cheek without her consent and made inappropriate comments about his personal life and her looks. “Ultimately, Ms. Doe was unable to return to work, because the sexual harassment had made her work environment intolerable, and Ms. Doe did not feel safe returning to work,” the lawsuit reads, adding that Mendizábal made her feel like “nothing other than a sexual object.”
Mendizábal never responded to Eater’s requests for a response to the lawsuit. His attorney, Harry A. Suissa, told Eater he believes the suit is “totally baseless, without merit” and is considering filing a countersuit for defamation, pending discovery.
For this story, Eater reviewed public records, spoke to nine female customers who recorded their interactions with Mendizábal or members of his staff on Yelp, and contacted multiple people who corroborated those accounts. Reviewers include a woman who called police on Mendizábal twice because she says he wouldn’t immediately return a designer purse she mistakenly left in the restaurant; a new mom who says he rebuked her in front of her husband and baby after she tried sending a meal back; and a woman who says he banned her from El Sapo for life when her friends attempted to claim two tables in an area reserved for happy hour, after the restaurateur told her they could only have one.
Months before the Urban Butcher hostess sued Mendizábal, Eater asked him how he explains women complaining about his behavior at El Sapo. He said he was raised by a single mother and is deeply offended anybody would call him sexist. Mendizábal said he’s dealt with abhorrent behavior from entitled customers — including a woman he says touched his buttocks without his consent and a man who he says loudly kept pressuring a woman for her phone number — and kicking people out of his restaurant is his prerogative. “I’m here to serve the people, I’m in the business of service, but I am not in the business of servitude,” Mendizábal said. “So within what we are, I give you my best within what I am. I cannot give you who I am not.”
“I am not bending over backwards for customers,” he continued. “I respect them, I work really hard, I have been honing my craft for 20 years, I consider that I’m very good at what I do and I’m proud of it. I will not be somebody’s house servant, and they should respect the restaurant the way I respect them. I will not tolerate disrespect against me or my staff, ever, by a customer, by the police, by the health department, by you, by my mother. That’s not gonna happen.”
“Bang me for good luck’’
At El Sapo, Mendizábal wants to create a racy environment for adults. There’s a mural of half-naked men in the women’s bathroom, abdominal muscles and hip bones practically jutting out of the wall. A Bethesda Magazine feature from August 2019 describes a sign above a conga drum at the door that reads, “Bang me for good luck.” According to published comments from the chef and allegations in a legal complaint, Mendizábal has little patience for children in his restaurant.
“People have gotten sitters to come here and have a nice time,” Mendizábal told Bethesda Magazine. “This isn’t Chuck E. Cheese.” An allegation from the Jane Doe harassment lawsuit at Urban Butcher also fits into this pattern: At one point, he allegedly pointed at a baby and said, “I’m done spending money on things like that,” then pointed back to the hostess, a high schooler at the time, saying, “I only want to be spending money on things like this.”
An El Sapo customer named Sheila Kensinger, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who says that she is trained to read people, believes that Mendizábal used the presence of women in his dining room as an invitation to flirt, then made a spectacle of himself by whipping around the floor and issuing demands like an imperious tornado. She said that Mendizábal “swooped in” on her table to chat up her two younger, female friends in Spanish while ignoring her so much that she couldn’t get his attention to place an order. Later on in the night, she said she saw him bossing his staff around and loudly telling a nearby couple they needed to wrap things up and forget about ordering dessert because he needed their table for other guests.
“This guy was really loud and he was all over the place and he was really rude to everyone,” Kensinger said, adding that she loved her meal, but one of the appetizers took 45 minutes to arrive as she constantly flagged servers down for help. “I really don’t think that the restaurant is a business for him; I think it is a social club — for him. It’s a place for him to act like the big man in charge and be social.”
Mendizábal said he did not remember this incident and had no comment.
Many customers believe that he views his restaurant as a place for him to judge what is and isn’t acceptable behavior from customers. In incidents several women described to Eater, the chef acted as the accelerant to arguments that most restaurant managers attempt to deescalate.
“He literally ruined my first Mother’s Day”
Tali Elitzur had her first disagreement with Mendizábal when he refused to let her and her husband roll a stroller holding their 9-month-old daughter through the dining room at El Sapo. She said she ended the meal trying to keep her baby from crying while Mendizábal dressed her down in front of the entire restaurant for sending her meal back.
Elitzur and her husband arrived at El Sapo to celebrate her first Mother’s Day. Their daughter was born with a congenital heart defect that required surgery soon after her birth, she said, so the holiday was especially poignant. “It was very, very special because of everything we went through to have our daughter surviving after birth,” Elitzur said.
Mendizábal, she said, wanted the couple to wheel the stroller outside, through the rain, to get to a table in the back of the restaurant. But Elitzur insisted they stay inside, and Mendizábal eventually agreed. Once at the table, Elitzur ordered a cocktail. A few minutes later, she changed her mind and told the waitress she wanted a different one, but only if she hadn’t put the first drink in. The waitress brought the second drink, and Elitzur ordered the $24 ropa vieja, a classic Cuban dish of stewed beef and vegetables. When it arrived, she didn’t like it, so she asked the waitress if she could order something else. The waitress disappeared, and Mendizábal appeared, proceeding to scold Elitzur for “giving trouble,” she said. He pointed out she’d already sent a drink back, and he said the restaurant wasn’t making her anything else.
“By the time he was done yelling at me, I said, ‘I don’t want anything, I just want to get the hell out of here,’” she said.
Elitzur said Mendizábal left and returned with the check, which he threw on the table before storming off. Her husband corroborated her version of events, but doesn’t recall Mendizábal raising his voice. The husband, who asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons, said Mendizábal’s aggression shocked him so much that he didn’t think to tell the chef to stand down. Elitzur said it’s puzzling that Mendizábal’s staff didn’t attempt to defuse the situation. On her way out, she asked general manager Judita D’Oliveira for a personal apology, but Elitzur said D’Oliveira shrugged and would not intervene. “I ended up leaving, crying and without eating anything for the day and just absolutely mortified,” she said. “He literally ruined my first Mother’s Day.”
Mendizábal said he does not remember this encounter and had no comment. Another customer claims a similar interaction, this time for abusing the “privilege” of happy hour, got her kicked out of El Sapo for good.
“Banned for life”
In May 2019, a customer at El Sapo tangled with Mendizábal over the amount of happy-hour tables her party wanted, she says. During the confrontation, the chef allegedly wagged his finger in her face and told her she was never allowed back. Dayna R., who asked Eater to use her Yelp handle for privacy reasons, said she didn’t have any problems when she hit up El Sapo for happy hour with a female friend in April 2019. But when the duo returned a month later and were joined by four more women, including one who was turning 72, she got into an argument with Mendizábal that she said led him to bar her from El Sapo forever.
She said she arrived at 5 p.m. with the friend whose mother was celebrating the birthday milestone. They asked Mendizábal for two happy-hour tables for six outside because the weather was gorgeous and nobody was out there. “Right off the bat, he was extremely rude,” Dayna said. “He said [something along the lines of], ‘Happy hour is a privilege,’ and we ‘can’t take up six spots at a happy-hour table because we would have to put two tables together, and that’s not fair, so I can only give you one table.’”
The women pointed out that that part of the restaurant was empty, but Dayna said Mendizábal told them happy-hour specials were very limited, and if he gave two tables to them, he’d be taking them away from other customers. They accepted a small table for four, and when the others arrived, they figured they’d somehow make it work or leave.
Dayna and her friend kicked back and ordered a $25 pitcher of mojitos. The rest of their group arrived about a half hour later and approached Mendizábal to ask for another table. Realizing they were all together, Mendizábal approached her and started wagging his finger in her face, she said. “We had a deal,” she recalled Mendizábal telling her. “I told you you couldn’t have another table, you promised me that this was going to be okay and you committed to me that you weren’t going to try to get another table from me.”
Dayna remembers pointing out that happy hour was ending in two hours and nobody else was there, and telling him to give them a break because they were celebrating — and the 72-year-old guest of honor was right there. She alleges that he told her he didn’t care about that because it was over a billion people’s birthdays that day. Then, she said, Mendizábal put his finger in her face once more and said, “You are banned from here for life. I’ll let you stay this time, but you are banned from my restaurant.”
The women had had enough. They told the waitstaff to take the appetizers away. And after downing the pitcher of mojitos, they paid the bill, left at around 6:15, and noticed the outside area was still empty. “I’m glad I’m banned, because I’m never coming back anyways,” Dayna said.
They took the party to Copper Canyon Grill a few blocks away, and when they left hours later, Dayna noticed El Sapo’s outdoor area was still empty, leading her to question why Mendizábal wouldn’t just give her group two tables.
Three of the people celebrating with Dayna at El Sapo that evening corroborated her account. One of them theorized Mendizábal hoped to cram them at an uncomfortable table for four so they’d feel compelled to eat and drink inside — where happy-hour prices didn’t apply.
Mendizábal said he doesn’t remember this encounter, either.
A showdown he had with yet another female customer would be more difficult to forget, because it turned into a dayslong back-and-forth with the Montgomery County police department.
“This guy’s big and he’s not nice”
Suzie S., who asked Eater to use her Yelp handle for professional reasons, doesn’t carry her golden Michael Kors purse anymore. Whenever she sees the designer bag, she remembers the night in January 2019 she forgot it at El Sapo and the drama that unfolded when she felt she had to call in police to get it back. “When I see that purse, I’m like, ‘That’s a bad luck purse,’” she told Eater. “I’m not using it anymore. It has such bad memories.”
After a Friday dinner with friends that ended after midnight, Suzie didn’t leave a tip, saying she was overcharged and experienced bad service. On a Yelp review of the meal Suzie posted a week after her initial visit, she complained Mendizábal and the general manager were “rude as hell,” there were long wait times, the restaurant ran out of food, and the meal was average at best. Mendizábal, she claims, retaliated for her decision not to tip by refusing to return the purse for nearly 40 hours and having one of his attorneys contact her. She ultimately arrived at El Sapo with four cops to try and get it back.
Within 15 minutes of leaving her dinner at El Sapo, Suzie said she realized she didn’t have the purse that held her car keys, house key, and work keys. One of her friends called the restaurant to ask D’Oliveira if they could return to grab the purse, but she said the general manager told them that was their problem, and they’d have to retrieve it Saturday evening — 17 hours later. When she showed up at 5 p.m. the following night, she said, Mendizábal not only refused to return her purse, but goaded her by asking, “You didn’t leave a tip, right? You want your stuff back, right?” D’Oliveira, the general manager, also mocked her, she claims.
Mendizábal told Suzie that her purse was in the restaurant’s safe, but he couldn’t give it to her because he couldn’t verify it was hers. That’s when she called the police. At 5 feet 1 inches and 130 pounds, she felt Mendizábal was bullying her. He stands nearly a foot taller and weighs 212 pounds, according to a police report. “I did feel like he was ... intimidating me as a man to woman,” Suzie said. “He’s a huge dude. Look at how tiny I am. This guy’s big and he’s not nice.”
Two officers arrived, and Mendizábal told them Suzie’s purse was locked in the safe, but he didn’t allow himself to access the locked box. He later told Eater he doesn’t think the owner of a restaurant should ever touch the money, just to avoid impropriety. He told police that a manager at his other restaurant, Urban Butcher, was the only one who could get in, and Suzie would have to wait a second full day to recover her belongings, because he was too busy to call that manager. That was good enough for the cops, but Suzie walked the four blocks to Urban Butcher to speak with that manager; she went home empty-handed because that manager also refused to help her and told her to come back Sunday, she said.
On the second day of the episode, Suzie returned to El Sapo with four police officers. Mendizábal, D’Oliveira, and the restaurateur’s attorney, Stevan Lieberman, were waiting for them. She said Lieberman, an intellectual property lawyer, tried to get her to answer questions and sign an unspecified document before handing over the purse, but an officer told him she didn’t have to do either to get her purse back. Suzie finally left with her purse after confirming all her property was intact. (Mendizábal said the document was written evidence that she received her belongings; Lieberman declined to comment.)
In response to a list of questions Eater provided to D’Oliveira about this incident and the one on Mother’s Day, she sent a message saying: “Raynold is a very good boss and a wonderful person, nothing you are asking me is true !!”
Mendizábal denied he was retaliating for the absent tip, which he said he didn’t learn about until after the incident. The police report, which redacted names, states that a restaurant owner remembered the customer from the night before “because she left a $2 tip for his waitress.”
“I think that is very rude, by the way,” Mendizábal said. “... It was as simple as she forgot a purse, the manager put it in the safe, I don’t have a key [to] the safe, she has to wait.”
Mendizábal also claimed that one of the police officers, James Walls, had accompanied Suzie as a personal friend and was using his position to try and “force his hand.” “The police officer did not come as a police officer,” he said. “So he used his uniform to intimidate me.”
Mendizábal is convinced this is the case because Walls returned to El Sapo without Suzie hours after the first visit to investigate whether the restaurant was checking IDs to serve drinks from a tray at the host stand. According to a police report, staff members didn’t answer officers’ questions, and Mendizábal showed all the required certifications to serve alcohol.
The owner then mocked Walls over a loudspeaker after asking him if he had found anything, prompting applause from customers as the officers left while proclaiming, “Thank you, officer Walls!”
Montgomery County Alcohol Beverage Services did not cite the restaurant in connection to that day. Mendizábal denounced the follow-up visit as “a complete abuse of power” by “a rookie trying to help a friend.” Walls, who has been on the force for roughly nine years, did not respond to a message left for him at the department, and the department would not make him available for an interview. Suzie didn’t respond to Eater’s requests for a follow-up interview.
Sgt. Rebecca Innocenti, the department’s public affairs officer, said Walls and another officer did not arrive at El Sapo to investigate the purse incident until after someone called the emergency communications center, meaning he couldn’t have escorted her to the restaurant. Walls reported he saw El Sapo staff serving alcohol without checking customers’ identification, and that’s what prompted him to return hours later with backup, she added.
Innocenti said if Mendizábal is alleging Walls took improper action, he should file a complaint with internal affairs.
“I don’t see color”
In addition to instigating episodes that left women feeling like the targets of Mendizábal’s ire, the chef and restaurateur has been accused of treating customers differently based on their race and ethnicity.
In her lawsuit against Mendizábal, the former Urban Butcher hostess claimed he told her “profiling works 99 percent of the time.” When Eater first reviewed a slew of negative Yelp reviews about El Sapo, multiple comments accused Mendizábal and his staff of exhibiting racist behavior. Mendizábal said some of those reviews can be traced back to a Hispanic couple he said launched a smear campaign against him on Facebook and Yelp in late January 2020, when he told them to wait for a table, then promptly seated a family of white diners ahead of them.
In Mendizábal’s telling, the Hispanic husband confronted him and implied he’s racist. Mendizábal, who is Cuban and identifies as Black, explained to him that he took care of the white people first because they had a reservation, while the couple did not. Mendizábal posted a response to the incident on Instagram, saying he told the husband he would not tolerate being called a racist anywhere, least of all in his own restaurant. He wrote that he asked the couple to leave, and he claimed they left screaming on the way out, vowing to take him down.
Screenshots of Facebook posts that El Sapo’s social media team provided to Eater appear to show one person threatening Mendizábal’s life and another one calling him racist. Yelp eventually deleted two reviews about El Sapo stemming from the fallout at the restaurant’s request because, according to a spokesperson, they “were not based on first-hand customer experiences.”
Mendizábal said the idea of anyone calling him racist is preposterous. He did not even want to hear the word “Black” when Eater asked him what he made of a Black reviewer on Yelp alleging that a server wouldn’t bring her a second glass of water until she asked for it in Spanish. The reviewer, Wilma L., who asked Eater to use her Yelp handle for professional reasons and out of fear of retaliation from Mendizábal, alleges that servers were disrespectful to her party from start to finish. “That a person complains, be Black or white, it’s irrelevant because I don’t see color,” Mendizábal said, “and if you come here… this is one of the most diverse places I’ve seen.”
“It was the American dream”
El Sapo has continued to operate through a public health crisis that has forced at least 100,000 restaurants to close across the country. Its social media accounts advertise glamour shots of rosy medallions of beef tenderloin sitting in lime butter and heat lamps warming up its outdoor “mojito garden,” while the Post’s Sietsema featured it in a review of takeout spots suitable for pandemic-era picnics. Brunch will be back on later this month.
Neither Mendizábal nor developer JBG Smith would comment on reported plans to bring a location of the Cuban restaurant to the Atlantic Plumbing building in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood. With Urban Butcher closed, at least temporarily, according to its website, El Sapo is Mendizábal’s sole venture. The restaurant’s name, which means “the toad” in Spanish, is inextricably tied to the chef’s life story. The amphibian represents the number 22 in Cuba’s lottery, and Mendizábal said he signed the lease to the restaurant 22 years to the day after he arrived in the United States.
“I feel that day I won the lottery,” Mendizábal said, commemorating the day as his second birthday. “It was the American dream come true.”
Despite allegations that he sexually harassed a former employee at one restaurant and mistreated his customers at another, all of which he either denies or says he doesn’t remember, Mendizábal is determined to keep El Sapo going. “This is my life, man,” he said.