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A ‘Top Chef’ Alum Was Denied Entry Into a Downtown Sushi Hotspot Due to Her Shoes

Shōtō stands by its “elegant and smart casual” dress code after turning away a Birkenstocks-wearing Marjorie-Meek Bradley

Shōtō’s sleek sushi bar sits next to a dramatic lava stone formation over the dining room. 
Rey Lopez for Shōtō
Tierney Plumb is the editor of Eater DC, covering all things food and drink around the nation's capital.

A power-chef friend trio — Michelin-rated Albi’s Michael Rafidi, Anju’s Rammy-winning restaurateur Danny Lee, and Stephen Starr’s corporate chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley — walked into downtown’s Shōtō on Saturday night to grab a drink, but only two were allowed in.

Meek-Bradley was denied entry because she apparently violated the modern Japanese izakaya’s dress code by wearing what the restaurant categorized as flip flops (though her shoes were bright yellow Birkenstocks). Shōtō’s dress code policy, which gets communicated at the time of making a reservation, via confirmation emails, again when calling to confirm, and for walk-ins, is as follows: “As a friendly reminder, SHŌTŌ Washington DC enforces an elegant and smart casual dress code. Please note that no athletic wear, jerseys, shorts, beachwear or flip flops are permitted.”

“It is certainly not to be taken personally, and in total fairness, our team wants to ensure that we are consistent,” says managing partner Arman Naqi, in an emailed statement provided to Eater. “We do not and cannot make exceptions based on who people are — even if they are fellow chefs and restaurateurs that we respect greatly.”

All three chefs instantly took to their personal social media accounts to post and repost Instagram stories about the Saturday night snafu, noting that Shōtō asked if Meek-Bradley could go outside and change her footwear.

The chefs ended up going around the corner to dine at New Orleans-themed Dauphine’s instead.

“To be clear, the reason why dress codes are so problematic is because it’s impossible to enforce them with any consistency,” wrote Lee on Instagram. “This enables sexist/classist/elitist/racist thought to guide the enforcement of these ‘codes.’” To that, Meek-Bradley added: “I understand the root of this is a much larger problem and I hope that by shedding some light on it I can help be part of a solution.”

Meek-Bradley jabbed Shōtō for being “too cool for school,” arguing that Birkenstocks aren’t flip-flops. Lee points out that his own attire that night looked like he just came from a kitchen but was still suitable by Shōtō’s standards (a Yalla-branded baseball cap from Rafidi’s Yellow Cafe and what he called “orthopedic shoes”).

“I would welcome any future opportunity to host Chef Marjorie, Chef Danny, and Chef Michael, and apologize personally if they were offended by our policy,” notes Naqi, in a statement.

It’s worthwhile to note that a red sweatpants-wearing Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin was spotted at a Shōtō table one night in the first few weeks of opening along with a table mate sporting sneakers.

Tierney Plumb/Eater DC

“I appreciate and welcome constructive criticism — it really means a lot to me,” says Naqi, who’s a fellow D.C. native, in a statement. “However, and especially between local industry people, I was disheartened to see the way they chose to address this on social media.”

It’s no secret that hotly anticipated Shōtō strives to be a scene-y spot. Three years in the making, the 155-seat Midtown Center stunner debuted in February with an ultra-luxe look from a top Tokyo-based restaurant designer (1100 15th Street NW). Comprised of a sleek sushi counter, bar, and Japanese robata grill, Shōtō is the newest member of London-based restaurateur Arjun Waney’s collective of brands. That includes Zuma, a high-end sushi restaurant and izakaya with 18 locations around the world — and its own list of banned attire, too. At Zuma Miami, that includes no “shorts, flip flops/sandals, baseball caps, active wear, and sweat-attire.”

While Naqi acknowledges that not every restaurant has a dress code, he says guest feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive” since opening.

“Many have noted that they are excited to get dressed up in order to celebrate life, friends, family and special occasions (especially coming out of the pandemic),” says Naqi, in a statement. “With this in mind, we strive to create a refined environment that reflects this notion.”

Naqi points out that Meek-Bradley’s employer Starr Restaurant Group has “similar verbiage” regarding dress code on some of its websites and reservation confirmation emails.

“I truly hope Chef Marjorie appreciates that I personally have had to make a conscious effort to dress in elegant attire on many occasions at her and Stephen’s restaurants such as Le Coucou,” says Naqi, in a statement.

The policy at that French-themed Soho standby does not prohibit items such as flip flops, but states: we politely request that you dress your best for your evening with us: Elegant for a NYC night out. Jackets are not required.

Dress codes are a common point of contention due to the subjective way at least one establishment has handled them in the past. In 2017, a bouncer at El Centro D.F. turned away a Black customer wearing high-top leather Converse sneakers — while allowing white customers with the same footwear entry. (In response to the negative press, the tequila bar fired the bouncer who denied the patron entry — and did away with the sneaker policy.)

Baltimore-based Atlas Restaurant Group, which had strikingly similar incident occur at Greek seafood spot Ouzo Bay in 2020, has affirmatively committed to “NOT” having a dress code at its forthcoming D.C. bars in the Moxy hotel.