New Orleans steakhouse apologizes to Black couple after their bill was doctored

Hayley Fowler
·4 min read

A Black couple having a date night at an upscale steakhouse in the suburbs of New Orleans on Friday said it was all “laughs and giggles” until the check came.

That’s when, they say, they noticed a 20% gratuity had been added automatically — a rarity for a party of two.

In a post on his personal Facebook page, James Washington said the manager at Desi Vega’s Seafood and Prime Steaks would later admit he and a server had racially profiled the couple and lied about the restaurant’s tipping policy.

“You mean to tell me that my wife and I, without any dispute at the table, gave off a vibe because of the way that we looked, that made you think we were the only couple your restaurant has ever served that wasn’t going to leave a tip?” Washington wrote.

The post prompted a public apology from the restaurant owner, who confirmed in a statement on the restaurant’s Facebook page the couple did “improperly have an autotip added to their bill.”

“The fact that my staff tried to cover the situation up by lying about it makes it much worse,” owner Desi Vega wrote. “These two employees have been immediately suspended without pay, pending further review. Desi Vega’s stands firmly against discrimination or profiling of any kind.”

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

What happened

According to the post, Washington and his wife went to Desi Vega’s in Metairie on Friday night “to wind down from a long week.”

The steakhouse is run by Desi Vega, who says he was “groomed” in part by Chef Emeril Lagasse. Steaks on the menu run the gambit from $48 to $58, and most entrees are upward of $30 each.

Washington said he grew up in the restaurant business as a server and busboy, adding that he customarily tips far more than 20% out of respect for the waitstaff. But when the check came with 20% gratuity already added, he said he “thought it was weird for a party of two.”

He asked the server, who reportedly confirmed it was restaurant policy.

The couple then called the restaurant while they were still at their table and spoke to the hostess, who passed the phone to the manager. When Washington asked about the tip policy and said they were seated in the restaurant, the manager again said “we add 20% to every single bill.”

“Still not wanting to believe that we got singled out, and trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, I spotted a white couple that had just paid for their bill,” Washington wrote. “I pulled them to the side and asked them if that happened to them. Their response — ‘absolutely not.’”

It wasn’t until they called the manager to their table and asked him again that he admitted to lying, Washington said. He reportedly told them “he and the server prejudged us” and had “kept the lie going” because he felt bad, according to the post.

“(He) said he didn’t mean to racially profile us but his server asked him to do this to us so he went along with it,” Washington wrote.

The manager said he was “embarrassed and humiliated” and that it had never happened before, nor would it again. But the experience left Washington and his wife shaken.

“In the grand scheme of things, a 20% gratuity is nothing,” Washington wrote. “But it’s a small sample size of how some people look at African-Americans and assume whatever they want to assume. The expedience of how the employee and the manager got together, conspired, and covered for each other makes matters worse.”

The restaurant’s response

Washington penned his Facebook post just before 9:30 a.m. Saturday and tagged the restaurant in it. In the hours that followed, hundreds of people responded by saying they wouldn’t give Desi Vega’s their business.

The owner uploaded a statement in response late Sunday night, saying he wanted to “publicly apologize to Mr. & Mrs. Washington” and calling them “truly an impressive couple.”

According to the statement, Vega met with Washington and his wife and talked about a solution — including posting the tipping policy publicly, starting racial bias and sensitivity training and continuing its partnership with Cafe Reconcile, which helps train young Black people for jobs in the restaurant industry.

Washington confirmed the meeting in a follow-up post on Monday and said he and his wife believe the apology was genuine. He also said Vega gave them a full refund on their dinner, though they didn’t ask for it.

“We did not post our experience to seek revenge, a lawsuit, or monetary gain,” he wrote. “Our post was made in an effort to bring awareness and positive change.”