Last month, L.A.’s iconic Langer’s Deli found itself in the midst of a PDA (public display of affection) scandal. According to Eater LA, a woman named Rachel Curry claims that Norm Langer, the owner of the deli, approached her table, introduced himself and told Curry and the woman she was with that they couldn’t be as openly affectionate (apparently they were kissing in the booth) as they were being.
“It was immediately clear to me and my date that this was about my being gay,” Curry told Eater LA. “It would’ve been a completely different story if we were a man or woman. He came up to our table with an authoritarian posture and appeared out of nowhere.”
Langer himself, of course, sees it differently. “In this case, they were very intent on each other and I think I startled them,” Langer tells me over the phone. “I had a walkie talkie with me and introduced myself, but I don’t think they heard me. I never asked them to leave — I just asked them to refrain from PDA in the booth.” According to Langer, the deli’s no PDA policy applies to everyone and has been around since his parents first opened the restaurant 72 years ago.
“Mom and dad started it,” says Langer. “We’re a family restaurant, we entertain families of all ages. My opinion is, I have no difficulty at all with couples holding hands or a peck on cheeks or lips. But no make-out session in the booth; it’s inappropriate. You come here, and you have expectations that make you comfortable to bring in your children. If it was a nightclub or bar, that’s different.”
Before we get into the issue of restaurants dictating what is and isn’t appropriate behavior, lets dig into what about PDA makes people so damn uncomfortable in the first place. Earlier this year, I wrote about some of the ways to stay within “appropriate PDA behavior parameters,” which did, in fact, include kissing. In the piece, I noted that one of the reasons why people are so repulsed by PDA, according to a 2016 study, is because people (especially men) who engage in PDA are perceived to be swapping spit in public just to enhance their image or status. “In other words, PDA is the curated Instagram image of love,” I wrote, “which means people who haven’t had the same luck are likely going to be turned off by the sight of a middle school-inspired make-out session.”
This is probably why PDA policies in general are most often associated with actual middle schools. And while it’s understandable — albeit a little annoying, especially when you’re a middle schooler brimming with hormones — that PDA policies exist, it also makes sense that some restaurant owners may want to invoke their own PDA policies. After all, if most people really can’t stand the sight of two people locking lips or dry humping whilst sharing some linguini, what choice does a restaurant owner have but to step in and mitigate the situation? “It’s just common sense,” insists Langer.
It’s not just Langer’s, either — several other eateries also have some sort of pseudo-official PDA policy. “Yes, we have one,” a manager at Norms Restaurant, another longtime family establishment in L.A., tells me. Though she can’t quite articulate what the official policy is, she admits that she has on occasion asked couples to refrain from kissing each other in the restaurant.
Abby, a restaurant manager at Firefly (a well-known “intimate” restaurant in L.A.) says that they don’t have a policy per se because they’ve never had any issues with couples kissing there. But she does admit that, because their restroom is unisex, they’ve had issues with couples in there. The manager at Pace, another popular date place in Hollywood, stresses that in the 20 years that they’ve been open, he’s only had issues with couples showing too much PDA once or twice. “People adapt to the ambiance of the night,” he says. “So as long as you’re polite when you ask them to, ‘Please stop!’ or say something like, ‘Glad you’re having a good time but can you please mellow out a bit?’ it’s never an issue.”
The real concern with regard to PDA policy, then, isn’t so much that a restaurant should never ask couples to refrain from making out while dining in public. That much, at least for most people, makes perfect sense. “We don’t care who it is, no one wants to see it,” says one manager at another famous West Coast deli in L.A. (they preferred not to have the restaurant identified). “We’re a family restaurant, and we don’t want anyone to feel offended.” The more pressing issue is how a PDA policy — official or unofficial — is enforced. “The easiest way to enforce the policy is to walk up to customer, introduce yourself and discuss it openly,” says Langer. “I’m not here to offend anyone. I only have to ask people a few times a year. I believe most people, straight or gay, are courteous and respectful of others around them.”
But while that may be true, there’s no denying that historically speaking, the standard for what’s considered appropriate or even acceptable PDA has been, and still is, different for non-heterosexual couples. In fact, most forms of PDA that heterosexual couples take for granted — holding hands, fixing your significant other’s hair, etc. — come with genuine safety concerns for many people in the LGBTQ community. “To this day, we really try to refrain from touching too much and rarely kiss in public,” Cheyanna Carbajal, a 25-year-old in Aurora, Colorado, told the New York Times last year. “Not to say we aren’t affectionate in public, but we stay very conscious of what is too much and what might offend people.”
Just last year, a gay couple was “intimidated” into leaving a restaurant due to a complaint from a fellow customer about them kissing. “Andaz Rana, the owner of the Mumbai Inn [in Leicester, England], then reportedly ‘stood over’ the couple and told them that the restaurant was a family-friendly place,” reports Pink News. “Mr. Rana later said that another customer in the restaurant ‘had not been comfortable’ with the pair.”
With that in mind, it’s impossible to assess the fairness of any restaurant’s “family-friendly” PDA policy without at least acknowledging conscious or unconscious biases toward non-heterosexual couples. It would be reassuring to take Langer at his word when he states that his PDA policy applies to “all couples,” especially since one of his employees — a member of the LGBTQ community — strongly stood up for his character in the fallout following the incident. But it’s also true that any restaurant policy subject to enforcement by a manager or owner’s interpretation of what is and isn’t appropriate lends itself to prejudice — again, whether conscious or not.
All in all, maybe it’s time to revisit our general aversion to PDA. Consider, for example, this study from Ohio State University, which found that couples that exhibit intimacy toward each other in a public setting tend to be more satisfied in their relationships than those who don’t. And who doesn’t want to enjoy their relationship more, even if it means potentially upsetting some dude trying to cram down a blintz in the corner? Maybe it’s time couples who want to eat each other’s faces inside an Arby’s should be allowed to do just that.
And if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t want to see that sort of thing, well, instead of alerting the restaurant manager, just look away.