HARLEM — Councilwoman Inez Dickens has called for a boycott of a new French restaurant in Harlem, accusing the upscale uptown eatery of moving a group of black women to accommodate a group of white patrons earlier this month.
At one point the group at Cedric Bistro included deputy Manhattan Borough President Rosemonde Pierre-Louis, but she left before the women were moved. However, she was called back to the restaurant by her friends later in the evening as the dispute over the move raged in the trendy spot.
In a tersely worded letter to the restaurant, which opened on St. Nicholas Avenue near 119th Street five months ago to rave reviews, Dickens accuses the owners of racism for moving the party of five high-powered black women on Feb 4.
"Racism against anyone in my community, in my district on my watch due to race, color, creed, sexual preference or perceived economic status is unacceptable," Dickens wrote in her Feb. 9 letter to the restaurant's co-owner Cedric Lecendre, who is white.
"Your policy of unequal treatment, strategic table placement, and disproportionate levels of service must immediately cease," Dickens wrote in her letter. "At this time, I am also supporting a boycott of your restaurant."
But the restaurateurs deny racism was the cause for the move — adding that the group of black women spent seven hours eating and drinking at Cedric before confronting staff about Lecendre's decision to ask the group to move to make way for an existing reservation.
"Maybe that wasn't the smartest thing, but it happens in the restaurant industry. It had nothing to do with race, it had to do with that he restaurant was busy," co-owner Fabrizio Khanlari told DNAinfo. "If you were offended or upset, you would ask for the bill and leave, not order 3 or 4 more bottles of wine and stay until 11 p.m."
Dickens declined to comment, but a spokeswoman said Monday that she stood behind the letter.
The note, which the restaurant said it received, came on the heels of a widely circulated email about the incident that spread like wildfire among members of The Links, a volunteer service organization for professional women of color.
According to the email, five black women were in the middle of a meal and cocktails at Cedric when Lecendre asked them to move to make way for a party of four customers, who were white and whom he said had reservations.
Several women rotated in and out of the group and the same five women were not present all evening.
According to Khanlari, the women came into the restaurant at 4 p.m. By the time the white patrons showed up for their 7:30 p.m. reservation, the group of black women were still sitting at the table, but were no longer eating.
"Cedric [Lecendre] said 'I'm terribly sorry. Can I move you to this other table to accommodate these other people.' They weren't eating, they were just drinking. They were kind and agreed," said Khanlari. Lecendre declined to comment.
Khanlari said staff also asked a separate group of Caucasian patrons to move that night to accommodate a group of people that had a reservation.
He said the women continued to drink at their new table, consuming five bottles of red wine and four glasses of champagne. By 10:30 or 11 p.m., he said, their mood had changed.
"They said 'I can't believe you moved us for four white Caucasians. We spent more money. We are from Harlem. We are powerful women and we can shut you down," said Khanlari.
He said Cedric responded, "whether you are from Harlem or don't live here everyone is equal. Whether you spend $30 or $400, everyone is equal." Khanlari admitted that Lecendre did raise his voice during the encounter.
Khanlari added that the incident was the "culmination of a lot of booze and a lot of over-excitement."
But the email circulated among the members of The Links, which appears to have been written by one of the women present the night of the incident, told a different story, saying that Lecendre justified his decision by saying the group of white patrons "had moved into the neighborhood, bought condos, and they were 'regulars' and he knew them."
The black women were then "crowded into an area that was next to the bathroom, kitchen, and front door," the email said.
"Ladies as residents of Harlem, many of us have lived here long before gentrification and not only own apartments, condos, but full brownstones in this area and have spent our money in this neighborhood far longer than residents who are gentrifying the neighborhood in the past few years. It is a disgrace that we were treated as second class citizens by a restaurant that is trying to thrive in the Harlem community," the email continued.
Khanlari dismissed the claims that Lecendre spoke about real estate, saying, "He didn't say white people come here and buy condos. That's bulls--t."
He also criticized Dickens for writing the letter without speaking to any of the restaurant's management to get their side of the story, and added that he believed those at the table were abusing their positions of power.
"Someone with the responsibility of Pierre-Louis needs to be a bit more responsible. Instead of mass mailing customers and asking for a boycott they should have spoken to us," said Khanlari.
Sakita Holley, a publicist and editorial director of the Eat in Harlem blog, said she's not surprised about the tension between long-time residents and new establishments given the recent level of gentrification in Harlem.
A new restaurant row has sprung up along lower Frederick Douglass Boulevard and restaurants like celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster Harlem are attracting first-time visitors to the neighborhood. Former president Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently dined at Red Rooster Harlem.
A row recently broke out over a liquor store in the Mount Morris Park historic district that had bullet proof glass. The owners relented and remodeled the store. Community groups also criticized a new 24-hour International House of Pancakes that serves after-hours through a 24-hour window with bullet proof glass. And Community Board 10 has wrestled with the idea of making new bars and restaturant halt serving liquor at 2 a.m., two hours earlier than normal.
"My level of surprise comes from not hearing about more incidents like this," said Holley. "Even with a restaurant like Red Rooster, Marcus Samuelsson looks like the people who live in the community but it can feel inaccessible because a limo or black car is always out front."
"There is always that underlying tension that you brought a condo and I lived in a rented apartment for 20 years and have raised my kids here," said Holley. "Business owners have been accommodating but they are focused on where the community is going, not who has been here. It's about how can I court this new Harlem resident."