New Restaurant Controversy

Top Houston restaurant embroiled in wheelchair access controversy: Chef disputes Houstonia mag's account

Houston's top restaurant embroiled in wheelchair access controversy

Oxheart wheelchair ramp October 2013
Prior to the night in question, Oxheart had ordered a new wheelchair ramp. Yu displayed it for this story. Photo by Eric Sandler
Oxheart Restaurant diners Justin Yu
Justin Vu takes a very hands-on approach at his small, nationally-recognized restaurant Oxheart. Photo by © Julie Soefer/Greater Houston Visitors and Convention Bureau
Oxheart, beets from Emile Street Garden with savory granola, wheatberries and bitter almond
Oxheart's food has drawn tons of critical acclaim — from close and far. Oxheart/Facebook
Oxheart wheelchar ramp October 2013
Yu chose this ramp becaus it's short enough to fit on the sidewalk in front of Oxheart. Photo by Eric Sandler
Oxheart wheelchair ramp October 2013
Oxheart Restaurant diners Justin Yu
Oxheart, beets from Emile Street Garden with savory granola, wheatberries and bitter almond
Oxheart wheelchar ramp October 2013

Oxheart — the much-acclaimed, nationally-recognized Houston Warehouse District restaurant — is suddenly getting some unwanted publicity for being unable to accommodate a wheelchair diner and considering charging the man a $200-plus cancelation fee after he couldn't get his chair into the small restaurant. Houstonia Magazine features editor Katharine Shilcutt — who planned to dine with the wheelchair-bound man — first brought the incident to light. 

Shilcutt portrays Oxheart as essentially indifferent to the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act and almost cruel in its decision to consider charging the cancelation fee. Oxheart chef/owner Justin Yu, who reluctantly agreed to talk about the incident, paints a different picture. 

Yu tells CultureMap the would-be diner made a reservation online and noted that he uses a wheelchair and would need to be accommodated.

 "People are going to say, 'Of course he’s sorry it happened because he got bad publicity.' That’s not the point." 

"Generally when someone makes a reservation like that, the first thing we do is note it as soon as (possible)," Yu says. "We noticed it at least a week out . . . We tried to call him at the very least three times. It’s possible even four times . . .

"At the very least to let him know what our accommodations would be. We’ve done that with every single person who’s been in a wheelchair here.

"I remember talking to my front of house manager during lineup that day that we hadn’t been able to get in touch with the gentlemen regarding what we could offer him as far as accessibility. We’ve had wheelchairs in here five or six times. They’ll come up the ramp. We’ll wheel them in. There is sidewalk accessibility."

Yu says that Oxheart's staff has even "moved a table out of the dining room to make someone be more comfortable in a wheelchair" in the past. Shilcutt's friend reportedly found the temporary ramp offered to him  inadequate and not navigable for his type of wheelchair.

Yu points to one of the comments on the Houstonia piece from a  wheelchair-using diner named Amerigo who's visited Oxheart three times.

"He came here for his birthday," the chef says. "He let us know the first time. We wheeled him up the ramp." While the ramp may not have been specifically designed for wheelchair access, Yu says it's the one he used to install a 500-pound stove into Oxheart during construction and notes it had been reinforced prior to the diner's visit. 

As pictured above, Oxheart now has a new wheelchair ramp that it ordered. Yu says it was ordered before the diner's visit. If the man looks at the new ramp and thinks it would work, Yu says he would welcome his return.

As for the cancelation fee, Yu wants to make one thing clear. "It was never charged. (The article) makes it sound like I decided yesterday, because an article came out, not to charge him." Yu says that when he spoke to Shilcutt the day immediately following the incident he wasn't sure what to do and that nuance wasn't reflected.

Asked whether he's sorry about what happened, Yu says "Sorry that it happened? More than anything I’m sorry there was a breakdown in communication. I’m just running it in my head. People are going to say, 'Of course he’s sorry it happened because he got bad publicity.' That’s not the point. I’m sorry it happened because more so than anything I wanted (the wheelchair-bound man) to come in. 

"I own a restaurant  because the fundamental aspect of going out and dining is my favorite thing in the world, being with your friends. Hopefully the food’s nice and hopefully you have a good time and you remember it forever.

"That’s why I own a restaurant."