Young and Hungry

Ladies Slight: The Problem with D.C.’s New Crop of “Female-Friendly” Restaurants? They’re Insulting to Women

You could easily mistake the images flashing across STK Steakhouse’s website for a Maxim spread. A spiky red heel piercing a bloody steak. A pair of red lips and perfect white teeth biting into a chunk of rare meat. A leggy model in stilettos and a tight, tiny dress carrying a cleaver. “Not Your Daddy’s Steakhouse” is the restaurant’s tagline. “Atmosphere. Temptation. Steak,” the homepage reads.

The atmosphere and temptation, of course, are aimed toward horny, and perhaps hungry, men—especially the kind with bordello fantasies. Although you wouldn’t know it from STK’s advertisements, the international restaurant chain, which will open its eighth location in Dupont later this year, calls itself a “modern steakhouse geared toward females.” That’s not STK’s only sexist contradiction. Between its menus bound in faux crocodile skin and cocktails with names like “French Kiss” and “Pink Elegance,” the restaurant invokes more gender stereotypes than an episode of Real Housewives.

In the D.C. area, STK isn’t the only place trying (however misguidedly) to feminize establishments often seen as chiefly appealing to males, like steakhouses and sports bars. There’s also Bracket Room, a “female-friendly” sports lounge opening in Clarendon this summer from The Bachelorette and Bachelor Pad star Chris Bukowski. Meanwhile, Wing Hub sports bar in Bethesda rebranded as Maggie’s last summer and made a number of changes to attract more female customers—although it isn’t overtly marketed as a restaurant geared toward women.

It’s one thing to distance steakhouses and sports bars from the realm of old boys clubs and guys’ nights out. But small plates and sexy décor? If this is what these restaurants believe women want, their target audience should be insulted. In their attempts to appeal to women, restaurants like STK end up condescending to them.

Then again, STK and its ilk aren’t really about appealing to women, anyway. They’re about using women to attract men. “We wanted to create an environment where girls can go and party,” says Devon Mosley, marketing and PR director of The ONE Group, the hospitality company which owns STK. “Truly, our CEO’s mentality is where the girls go to play, the men will follow.” (No surprise: The CEO, Jonathan Segal, is a man.)

That’s also Bukowski’s mentality when it comes to Bracket Room. Before his TV debut, the reality star studied hospitality management and business at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and worked in bars there. “Our whole thing was to get girls to come because, basically, [then] the guys come,” Bukowski says.

Even Maggie’s owner Jeff Trilling echoes the sentiment: “Once a woman comes in here and she loves our food, then it’s so much easier for the guy to bring his girlfriend or wife back here.”

What women want to eat, apparently, isn’t greasy buffalo wings or 32-ounce ribeyes. When I ask Mosley which aspects of STK are supposed to appeal to women, the first thing he mentions is the raw bar, not red meat. The steaks, he later points out, are available in large, medium, and small sizes. Bracket Room doesn’t have a finalized menu yet, but Bukowski says it will serve small plates with lots of healthy options.

Those offerings aren’t especially different than the menus at plenty of local restaurants whose concepts have nothing to do with gender. But in the context of a female-oriented restaurant, the small portions and healthy foods peddle the notion that women don’t want to eat a lot, and that they don’t enjoy nachos or New York strips. The idea that a steakhouse is somehow a “man’s” restaurant is already backward, but the suggestion that women want a feminized version of one is even worse.

Even more offensive is the idea that what women want is a place for men to hit on them. “It’s for the crowd that wants that sleek sexy flirtatious experience,” says STK’s Mosley. Purple, cream, and black are the dominant colors, and the stools at the bars are elevated, making them “very easy to walk up to and make conversation.” The booths are curved and open to each other, “so that everyone is facing each other.” Rather than a restaurant that caters to women—whatever that means—STK appears to have been designed as a pickup playground. It may not be your daddy’s steakhouse, but it’s definitely your sugar daddy’s steakhouse.

Bukowski is still working on Bracket Room’s décor but is aiming for a “cleaned-up upscale look” with a “softer atmosphere.” The lounge will also have a VIP area—less the stuff of a sports bar than a velvet-rope nightclub. A press release says Bracket Room will “boldly redefine the upscale, state-of-the-art sports bar, with wit and irreverent charm.”

As a sports fan and a former sports marketing manager, the 26-year-old Bukowski says he’s wanted to open a sports bar for a long time. The idea of opening a female-friendly one came to him two or three years ago, he says, before he appeared on ABC’s primetime dating shows. But his 2012 appearance on Bachelor Pad, in which former Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants live in a house together and compete for $250,000, suggests he may not be the most in touch with women’s preferences. Over the course of the season, the chiseled-abs, blue-eyed Bukowski became the show’s villain, hooking up with and then ditching two of the female contestants.

Nevertheless, Bukowski maintains a sizable female social media fan base, which he’s consulted for input on the sports lounge. (He has more than 97,000 Twitter followers and claims 95 percent are women.) Bukowski also has a female business partner, Nicole Pettitt.

STK is likewise headed by a man, but Mosley is quick to point out that the hospitality group’s senior vice president, Celeste Fierro, is a woman. As far as creating an environment that appeals to women, though, Mosley says the restaurant group didn’t rely on any customer research or focus groups. Rather, “life experience” and “common sense” guided the restaurants’ direction, Mosley says.

At Maggie’s, the attempts to appeal to women aren’t as garish. You won’t find phrases like “female-friendly” on Maggie’s website or in its marketing materials. The restaurant still has a sports-bar look, with jerseys on the walls and flat-screen TVs, though female servers now wear pink shirts. (Men wear black or burgundy.) In order to widen his customer base, Trilling is building an outdoor Tiki bar this spring with a margarita and daiquiri machine. He’s also added a pizza oven and nearly doubled the menu offerings to include more sandwiches, subs, salads, and sides.

But Trilling says the most important change was ditching the name Wing Hub. “It’s a lot easier to get a female in the door with the name Maggie’s than it is Wing Hub,” Trilling says. “Perception is a big deal. It’s also a big deal with the human resource directors, the majority of which are females, in trying to get catering business.”

When the restaurant was still Wing Hub, Trilling says he informally surveyed his few female customers to see if they’d come more frequently if the bar was named Maggie’s. “Emphatically yes,” Trilling says. “Every single girl I talked to. Not one said no. Not one said it doesn’t make a difference.” Meanwhile, his male customers told him they’d be more likely to bring their girlfriends or wives if the place was called Maggie’s. Between the new name and the menu changes, Trilling says his female customer base is up 15 to 20 percent from six months ago. His patrons are still predominantly male, but Trilling has noticed a lot more couples and dates.

As for where Maggie’s comes from, Trilling explains it was the name of a Tenleytown pizzeria that his father Joe ran for several decades. The pizzeria, which opened in the 1950s, was originally owned by a guy named Phil “Maggie” Magenello.

“Yes,” Trilling says, “It was a nickname for a man.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photo by Cynthia Cortes

...