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On Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1991, a freelance writer named Mike Hughes sat in a section of Bette’s Oceanview Diner covered by a server named Barbara. According to Manfred Kroening, the surviving husband of restaurateur Bette Kroening, Barbara asked Hughes to either put away the copy of Playboy magazine he was reading, or move to a new section.

“She went to the manager and told him, ‘I’m not gonna serve this customer,” Kroening recalls in a telephone interview. Barbara attended to other diners, Hughes received his meal, paid and left. The incident seemed handled.

But that was just the beginning.

The next day, Herb Caen, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, included an item about Hughes’ encounter, only in Caen’s version, Hughes ordered breakfast, and a “highly offended” Barbara served up an ultimatum: ‘“Either put that away or leave.” Caen went on to report:

Mike departed, leaving a tip in the form of a note saying ‘Read the First Amendment’ . . . P.S.: Mike was reading a Nat Hentoff piece on freedom of the press but guys always say they buy Playboy for the articles.

After diner employees contacted Oakland Tribune columnist Murray Stapp, he wrote a piece presenting their side of the story, which led Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll to add his two cents. Soon, it was national news: In a city that had birthed the Free Speech Movement, feminists were facing off against First Amendment advocates.

Bette supported her customers’ right to read, her husband said, and also wanted to make sure servers understood they were not required to serve anyone who made them feel uncomfortable. At one point, someone posted a handwritten copy of the First Amendment next to a wall telephone.

But within days, the diner had become a battleground. Some customers started bringing reading material — and not the new Tom Clancy or Amy Tan novel — to peruse with their meal. “All these feminist groups came in, sat down and didn’t order, then we had bomb threats, so we said we had to really react,” said Manfred Kroening. 

Frequent diner Bill Redican organized a read-in for Sunday, Sept. 22. He told the Chronicle that he had never read the magazine whose tagline was “entertainment for men,” but said he was offended on general principle: “It’s another excess of the politically correct left.” Bette decided to use the event as a press conference, Kroening said.

Pouncing on the disagreement as a First Amendment issue, Playboy sent “cases and cases of magazines” to the read-in, he remembers. That Sunday, staff distributed mini-pancakes and free scones before Bette addressed the crowd and explained her commitment to a free speech and harassment-free workplace.

“Today, Bette’s Diner celebrates the expansive freedom we all share to explore and illuminate the issues of free speech and individual expression,” she said.

“And then,” her husband recalled, “hell broke loose.”

Around 100 demonstrators and counter-protesters had assembled, according to an Associated Press report, though the Chronicle counted just about “a dozen people on each side,” with onlookers comprising the majority.

A Bay Area stringer who covered the scene for Playboy captured video of the rhetorical melee, but columnist James R. Petersen mainly saved his powder for the counter-protesters, their physical appearance, and the signs they carried, with messages like, PORNOGRAPHY IS A SEXUAL ASSAULT ON ALL WOMEN and, WHO CARES ABOUT WOMEN’S RIGHTS? THEY’RE ALL TITS AND ASS TO ME.

To illustrate the piece, Playboy inserted a cropped photo from the Chronicle’s coverage depicting three men at Bette’s counter who are each holding open copies of the magazine. The man seated on the left smiles and looks out of frame as he holds his copy sideways and lets it unfold in signature centerfold-viewing fashion.

Three decades later, the magazine’s headline lands differently: “The Playboy read-in: in which the dickheads take Bette’s Diner.”

Kroening remembers it vividly: “Customers were dressed up as waitresses and had plates full of hot dogs with ketchup and threw the hot dogs at men. There were women with penis heads. I mean, it was like a crazy show for Berkeley, right?”

A detail from Playboy magazine’s 1991 coverage of the protest at Bette’s. Courtesy: Playboy

After Redican was struck by a condiment-covered sausage, he told reporters, “I couldn’t ask for any clearer demonstration of intolerance.”

Hugh Hefner’s magazine picked sides, but it may also be the only publication that ran an extended version of the inciting incident from Barbara’s perspective. She said Hughes had their magazine “propped up on his table in a fashion where everyone in the restaurant had to see it.” Barbara added that her boss initially supported her, “but when Mike Hughes, the worm in question, refused to stop screaming, my manager finally apologized and allowed that abomination to continue eating and reading in my section.”

At one point, the videographer even caught up with Hughes, the man at the center of the action. “This whole thing is a reaction to something that didn’t happen,” he said.

Even if the controversy was manufactured, it was perfectly timed for the cultural moment. Few people could describe exactly what third-wave feminism was, but “Thelma and Louise” had come out the previous summer, hardcover critiques by Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi were on the bestseller lists and a few weeks later, law professor Anita Hill would become a global celebrity when she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her.

Employment attorney Barbara Lawless told Nosh that Bette handled the 1991 controversy just as she would have advised. If Barbara had approached her with a complaint over workplace harassment, “I wouldn’t have taken the case, then or today,” she said.

“As long as she doesn’t have to be exposed to it, can walk away and her manager’s willing to serve the guy, I think it’s fine,” Lawless said. The manager “handled it very professionally,” Lawless said.

Companies cannot compel employees to be around sexually explicit materials. For example, it would be similarly illegal to play explicit videos after workers stated their objections. “As an employee, you have the right not to be offended,” she said.

The furor died down, but, “even years later,” customers continued to bring pornographic magazines to the restaurant or ask about the protest, Kroening said. “People would still come because it was such a big deal: ‘Oh I remember, you were in Playboy, weren’t you like, in the news? Is this the diner?’”

The read-in is a chapter in Fourth Street’s culinary history, and was an incident that many readers brought up when Bette’s announced its closure in January. But not everyone agrees that this little bit of Berkeley history should be remembered.

Looking back at the controversy after three decades is “a waste of time,” asserted Denny Abrams, Fourth Street developer and owner of Abrams/Millikan & Associates, the design/development firm that worked with Bette and Manfred Kroening and then-co-owner Sue Conley to open the restaurant back in 1982.

“Are you really that hard up?” he asked when reached for comment. “This is a bullshit story that feeds into the worst of cancel culture today, and you shouldn’t be reporting it.”

When the diner reopens this year, William Bishop will serve as GM and manage the new, employee-owned corporation. He told Nosh that he’d handle things differently if he and his co-owners encounter a similar issue in the future.

Anyone who crosses the threshold relinquishes their First Amendment rights for the duration of their meal. “The way I would view somebody coming in reading that material here obviously would be sexual harassment of the people around them, and that’s what I wouldn’t tolerate,” Bishop said.

“I would be polite, but I would definitely ask them to leave if they didn’t put it away,” he told Nosh, adding that all restaurants set rules for customer behavior. “It’s not my job to guarantee somebody’s free speech and allow them to exercise it here. It’s the government’s job not to infringe upon that.”

Walter Thompson is a journalist who lives in San Francisco and hosts The Golden City, a podcast about the city’s past, present and future. His work has appeared in Hoodline, San Francisco Magazine, Alta and The Guardian. He probably posts too frequently on Twitter as @yourprotagonist.