As the Chinatown cocktail bar Hop Sing Laundromat marks its fifth anniversary this week, a peculiar, controversial facet of the dress code will be relaxed.
Specifically, you no longer will be turned away at the gate for wearing sneakers, effective May 25.
The owner, known simply as Lê, said he never had any objection to his patrons' wearing Maison Margielas or Chucks while they sip some of the city's best cocktails in a cloistered, candlelit room brimming with formal elegance over a rock-and-roll soundtrack. He said it simply was time to end the restriction.
The no-sneakers rule actually stemmed from a joke he told during a media interview shortly before the opening. He said he then decided to apply it to the dress code, which forbids shorts, flip-flops, and sandals. Those items are still verboten.
On average, 110 to 120 people a week, including those who do not produce ID to the doorman, are denied entry, Lê said.
Lê applies his policies uniformly, whether it's a celebrity, such as five members of the Miami Heat who rolled up to the unmarked entrance one night in Escalades, or Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan, who tweeted last summer that he was "rejected" for "two offenses." Lê said that he seats only complete parties and that the second person in LaBan's party showed up late and in sneakers. No drinks for you.
Lê also forbids photo-taking or recording devices of any kind and directs patrons to make all phone calls from the lobby, not from the bar or a table. Violating those rules, or acting up in general, will get a person banned.
Lê said the banned list includes 1,700 names.
Lê, whose public persona bills him as a high-ranking North Korean government official spewing mocking, anti-capitalist references, frequently boasts of the rejections and interactions on social media, closing with a plaintive "no hate mails, please." For every comment praising his discipline, many others dismiss him with vulgar epithets. He prizes his own anonymity and, though he has never been photographed, seems to be recognized everywhere.
"Do I enjoy playing a bad guy?" Lê said. "Absolutely not! But I'll be the first to admit there is some satisfaction when you put idiots in their places. As for Internet trolls, if they are going to call me names in their childish comments, then they've forfeited their rights to cry foul when I go Darth Vader on them."
Lê said one person was allowed back - a "particular lady who mailed us a hand-written letter and explained the incident that got both her and her friend on the banned list. Her explanation was fair and reasonable, so we deleted her name from the list. Yes, a hand-written letter! Who does that anymore?"
She couldn't very well have called. The bar has no phone.
Not that crankiness is necessarily bad for business, in an industry fraught with turnover, and it has not deflected critical acclaim; among Hop Sing's awards is inclusion on Conde Nast Travel's list of the world's best bars.
Last week, Lê said he was so unsure that Hop Sing would succeed at first that he had a shower installed in the employees' restroom. "I was preparing to live there until the lease ran out if it didn't work," he said.