Food  |  News & Politics

This DC Wharf Restaurant Called the Police on a Diner For Alleged Hostile Behavior. She Says It Was a Racial Issue.

Customers were escorted from Kaliwa, whose owners deny any bias.

Kaliwa. Photograph by Evy Mages

Finding a hair in one’s food can be unappetizing at best—or an incident that sparks a debate over racial discrimination and a visit by the police at worst. At least that’s what occurred last week at the newly opened Wharf restaurant, Kaliwa.

Damelia Shaw, a DC native of African American descent who works for a local marketing firm, says she visited the new Southeast Asian restaurant last Friday with a Latina friend who recently moved into one of the waterfront development’s condos. The duo sat at the bar in the packed restaurant, and Shaw detailed how the evening got off to an uneven start when they ordered a noodle dish that they thought was easily shareable, like pad thai, and were given a noodle soup instead. Shaw says a manager, who is white, offered them an additional pour of wine to ameliorate the misunderstanding—as is typical in the hospitality industry.

Then a whole fish entree arrived. Shaw said her friend pulled “a long, black hair” out of the fish entree. The duo pointed out the hair to another employee and asked to see the same manager again.

“I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, or make people around us disgusted with their meal,” says Shaw. “I thought she was going to apologize, and instead she said, ‘It looks like your hair.’ And she’s looking at my friend, who has blonde hair. I was like, ‘You’re accusing us?’”

Shaw says the manager asked what they would like her to do, and so they requested she take the fish off the check. Shaw says a male employee came over, offering more gratis wine and dessert.

“At that point, I was disgusted at how she [the manager] was handling the situation, and we just wanted to pay and leave,” says Shaw. She alleges that the manager returned with “an attitude,” asking her and her friend what they expected beyond comped wine, and demanding to know what industry they work in. Shaw says she informed the manager that she worked in the hospitality industry for seven years. She says the manager accused her of “being hostile,” and asked the friends to leave. When they refused, the manager called the police.

“We didn’t want her to spin the story and say we walked out not paying the rest of the bill,” says Shaw. “In this day and age, especially being a brown and black girl, you have no idea what to expect with police officers. We prepared ourselves.”

Owners chef Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong refute the claims of racial bias or mishandling of the situation. Cathal, who was present in the open kitchen at the time but didn’t get personally involved, says he spoke with employees and diners—including African American customers who were seated next to Shawand also reviewed video footage of the night of the visit.

“It’s clear that the likelihood of the hair she claimed wasn’t hers is actually hers,” says Armstrong, based on his review of the video (which didn’t include audio coverage). He says the whole fish was shared on a family-style plate and that Shaw’s friend found the hair on her own dining plate, according to video surveillance.

“She’s twirling and twirling and twirling her hair, and playing with it over and over again. Our manager suggested it was her hair, and then she got very aggressive. We comped the fish, we offered to buy them dinner we gave them extra wine, and they still wouldn’t back down. They kept going at us.”

Armstrong says the manager handled the situation with professionalism as she was trained. He says when she asked the friends to leave, they said, ‘We’re not leaving, you’ll have to drag us out of here.’”

“We had no choice but to call the police,” says Armstrong. Since opening Restaurant Eve in Alexandria 15 years ago, he says it’s the first time the authorities have gotten involved with a customer.

Shaw says she and her friend waited 20 minutes for the police to arrive, all the while allegedly “getting dirty looks” from the staff. She says when the police officer arrived, he listened to stories from both the manager and herself before calmly addressing the situation.

“The policeman came in with a positive attitude, he wasn’t combative,” says Shaw, “I can’t sing his praises enough.” She says she and her friend were escorted from the restaurant by the police “with dignity and on our own terms.” Neither party has filed an official complaint or taken legal action.

Shaw says she turned to venting on Facebook after processing the incident and growing angry. Her public post from April 14 circulated among her friends, and then gained more traction the next day when two African American men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks when a white manager called the police on them. A video taken by a Starbucks customer went viral and became national news over the weekend; the chief executive of Starbucks has since met the two men and personally apologized.

“This isn’t a DC problem, but a problem around the country,” says Shaw. “Why are you wasting officers’ time for a situation you could have handled? We have a case here of implicit bias. Everyone has it. We have a lack of customer service, an issue of crisis management. These are things restaurants have to train their staff on.”

But Armstrong says the incident has nothing to do with a national narrative about anything. “It’s an isolated incident that occurred. It’s not about race,” he says. “We love everyone. To say otherwise is unequivocally false and just wrong. We’re in the hospitality business, and here to make diners happy.”

He says the other manager who offered Shaw and her friend free items is African American, and that as they were leaving, the duo “told them he should leave and not work for us anymore because we’re such terrible people.” He says he worries how this might negatively impact the fledgling restaurant. 

I hope the truth gets out and people realize we’re the ones that got injured, not this person,” says Armstrong. 

Meshelle Armstrong, who’s of Filipino descent, points to a part of Shaw’s Facebook post wherein Shaw writes that she’s “tired of non-whatevers gentrifying a culture, taking over cuisines and watering it down to cater to a certain demographic.”

“My family owned Little Quaipo, a little Filipino restaurant which served patrons for over 25 years,” writes Meshelle in an email statement. “My husband and his team only respect, love and honor the food and culture of these countries. We strive everyday to represent well.”

For her part, Shaw says she’s only hoping for a personal apology from the Armstrongs and Kaliwa. Instead, she says she was blocked by the restaurant on social media and hasn’t heard anything personally.

“I’m a Washingtonian, I’ve been here for 38 years,” says Shaw. “The area has shifted a lot. What went from a predominantly black city isn’t that anymore. I welcome change and the new restaurants, but the employees have to understand that the natives are welcome as well.”

Correction: This post was updated to fix a grammatical error. 

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.