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Women are still waiting on restaurant equality

The sex discrimination charge from the guy who wants to join the women waiting tables at Hooters has a lot of folks smirking _ and a lot of others cheering. Not me. Whatever the legal merit of the complaint or the propriety of a "girl bar" in the 1990s, the charge is irrelevant to a larger injustice in the restaurant business: Traditionally, the biggest tip jobs in the fanciest restaurants go to men, not women.

Think back on the snazziest meals you've had. How many were served by women?

Maybe the complainant can't get hired at Hooters or its imitators. There are, unfortunately, too many places where a man would be hired and a woman not. If the wing joints trade on sex appeal, the high-priced joints trade on snobbery that can be just as offensive.

Regardless of motive, discrimination against women is more prevalent than discrimination in their favor in the highest ranks of restauranting. Tradition created a simple hierarchy: At the bottom were waitresses scraping change off counters; at the top were men taking folding money off tables covered with linen.

Matters have been worse for black people of both sexes. They often were a step behind and below on the pyramid, found more often in the kitchen doing dishes or clearing tables than waiting on customers. It's ironic, given that waiting tables is the kind of domestic service jobs to which blacks were once limited. Florida's beach resort areas still seem very white in their guests and in their best-paid service positions.

There is a paradox here, of course, because being a waiter or waitress is a form of personal service. That was once seen as undemocratic subservience, but today we are repeatedly told that we live in a "service" economy and a growing number of us will pay good money for service. The best minds in restauranting, corporate and independent, want service regarded as professional, not menial. And we know that tips in good restaurants can produce good incomes.

Why hasn't the wealth been shared between the sexes? It doesn't take a radical feminist to see the cultural roots of this. Cooking and serving food were domestic chores that women were supposed to do. Having a man do them, now that's something special, prestigious _ and worth paying extra.

Lesser reasons float around, too. In some places, a trayload of entrees amounts to heavy lifting. More outdated is the idea that waiting is not considered full-time "real work" when done by a woman but is "professional" when done by a man (on the false premise that only men are supporting families). Likewise, years of such thinking give men an advantage when seniority or years of experience come into play. The best restaurant jobs often go to people who have been in the game the longest _ men.

Or consider the requirement that Tampa's Bern Laxer had when he was getting started in 1957: He had men and women employees but he required his waiters to have beards, one of his first publicity gimmicks. In 1973, the National Organization for Women charged that Bern's Steak House and several other Tampa restaurants discriminated by having waiters. Laxer says he didn't discriminate and that

over the years he has hired women to wait tables. He has only one waitress now.

Disturbingly, the tradition of waiters appears to be an import and most common in restaurants that aim for a "European" atmosphere. At Le Bordeaux in Hyde Park, Gordon Davis tries to hire French nationals as waiters, and most of them are men. "It's not that that's the way we want to do it; it's just that we're kind of stuck with it," he says.

Thankfully, a growing number of restaurants are not stuck, and many enlightened restaurateurs in all price ranges never have been. These small entrepreneurs and big chains are progressive, enlightened or court-shy to have decided that women as well as men can do any job in the front of the house. From chic New American spots like the Heritage in St. Petersburg to top-dollar hotel restaurants like Armani's, and most chains in-between, women can wait tables with pride _ and good tips.

And they can wear black ties or polo shirts with the best of them.

So maybe the Hooter's complainant has a point: Let men wait tables in running shorts and T-shirts, too. Women might appreciate it _ but they'd appreciate more opportunity, too.