Party’s Over: Port Fonda’s “cool kid” reputation masked years of sexual harassment, fear, and abuse
"It is hospitality industry culture that we do not bite the hand that feeds us because we are all easily replaceable.”
It should have been easy. Valentine’s Day 2020 was a Friday—guaranteed money for any restaurant with a shred of ambience. Port Fonda, Kansas City’s nationally lauded Mexican restaurant, was hosting a four-course dinner inspired by Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate. The restaurant had put on the same themed dinner three years in a row, even re-using the same advertising. In an alternate reality, chef-owner Patrick Ryan and his staff might have been on autopilot. But in this one, everything was falling apart.
Ryan was in a particularly foul mood. He’d yelled at servers and kitchen staff and driven more than one employee to tears. Before dinner service began, he’d thrown two of the restaurant’s KitchenAid stand mixers across the back hallway in a fit of rage.
Nancy Wright, Port Fonda’s general manager at the time, left mid-way through the dinner, exhausted and demoralized, after she says Ryan screamed at her about not having enough wine glasses ready for the third course.
After Wright left, server Megan Brigance watched Ryan toss out a chile relleno, thinking he had one too many. When he finished plating the course, he came up one short. “He grabbed it out of the trash, put it on the plate, and put the sauce over it,” Brigance says.
The resurrected chile relleno went out to a table in the Reserva room, the restaurant’s semi-private dining room. On the wood-paneled walls hung framed news articles and accolades for the restaurant’s award-winning chef. Beneath them, someone was eating food from the trash.
Staff who had worked the dinner were shocked, and some discussed quitting. In text messages between Ryan and Wright reviewed by The Pitch, the chef acknowledged the incident. “It happened,” Ryan says. “I’m sorry. They can either quit or get over it. I’m not sure what else I can say.”
For Wright, that dinner was a turning point. “Up until that point, I didn’t respect him as a business owner, but at least he was a good chef. And that all went out the window.”
Since Port Fonda opened in Westport in 2012, it’s had a reputation as a hip spot for mezcal and mid-priced Mexican food. At night, the music would pulse loud enough to bury all conversation. Thin, attractive women wearing Baldwin denim (a uniform required by the restaurant and purchased at the employees’ expense) would circle the floor, delivering tequila shots and chimichangas to a sea of young professionals.
Every night felt like a party. But when COVID-19 temporarily closed the restaurant’s doors last March, the hangover started to creep in. Almost overnight, the whole city seemed to be talking about how to “save restaurants.” Some Port Fonda employees had started questioning whether there was anything worth saving.
Over the past two months, The Pitch spoke to 17 former Port Fonda employees—line cooks, servers, bartenders, managers. Their complaints ranged from sexual harassment to racism to psychological and verbal abuse, primarily from Ryan and his co-owner Jamie Davila.
Jamie Davila could not be reached for comment. As of early February, his LinkedIn page still lists him as “owner/operator” of Port Fonda, with the note: “While I intend to keep my ownership in Port Fonda I’m looking for a new opportunity to share me [sic] knowledge and skills.”
After initially agreeing to an interview, Ryan did not return calls or emails seeking comment on specific allegations. In a statement emailed to The Pitch, Ryan says, “I take accusations of this nature very seriously and personally. I feel for all the people who had a negative experience at Port Fonda and genuinely apologize for all the things that did happen. For all the things that were said that did not happen, there is nothing I can do or say or argue to make this situation better. What I can do is make sure I move forward with integrity and purpose as a person and for the industry.”
Ryan did not respond to a follow-up email requesting clarification on which things did or did not happen.
From the early days of the restaurant, Port Fonda felt more like a nightclub than a workplace. Staff say Ryan and co-owner Jamie Davila would frequently pour staff members shots before service—sometimes, as early as 8:30 a.m.
Josh Rogers, an assistant manager from 2012 to 2014, described a “party atmosphere” that superseded professionalism.
“I would show up for my Sunday night shifts at four o’clock, and there’s ‘Rack City’ railing at full volume, and servers are like, ‘Jamie’s already shitfaced, you’ve got to go talk to these three tables.’ As soon as I walk in, it was immediate damage control.”
Employees say Ryan was also frequently intoxicated while on duty. When he was working the line during brunch shifts, bartenders would pass him quarts of vodka on ice. When he was out in the restaurant, he would pound shots of Altos tequila. Some employees took it as a cue. “Staff members would get visibly intoxicated and not be able to take care of their duties or even be safe,” says Ryan Rama, a bartender who worked at the restaurant from 2017 to 2019.
When Ryan and Davila weren’t drunk, they were often high on cocaine—so much so, that employees colloquially referred to the restaurant as “Snort Fonda.” Rogers remembers Davila periodically excusing himself from the expo line, emerging a few minutes later from the bathroom and wiping his nose: “Jamie would come up to me multiple times in the evening [gesture to his nose] and say, ‘Am I clear?’”
Davila’s cocaine habit in particular was a frequent punchline, former server Markus Dixon noted: “One day we were cleaning up at the beginning [of a shift], and someone had dropped like an Altoid, a little white Altoid, and someone else stepped on it, and whoever saw it was like, ‘Jamie!’”
Multiple employees say they were invited “upstairs,” to the condos where Davila and Ryan lived, to do cocaine in the middle of their shifts. One bartender who spoke to The Pitch on condition of anonymity says they felt pressured to participate. “I was like, if I don’t go upstairs and do this fucking cocaine, they’re going to fucking fire me.”
“From my experience, it had all of the symptoms of an out-of-control cocaine problem,” says one former line cook who asked not to be named in this story. He witnessed Ryan and Davila high often and says both Davila and guests of the restaurant had offered him cocaine during shifts.
But for most employees, it wasn’t the substance abuse that was the issue—it was the aftermath. When Ryan was high or drunk, the cook says, “he would go from being a very skilled, calculated, precise, very good at his job, very well-rounded chef, to just anger: spewing insults at his staff, throwing things, saying really hateful shit to people…and it was so difficult to do my job walking on eggshells waiting for the fallout.”
“I’m working with a psychopath.”
Caitlin Corcoran, who worked as the bar manager from 2012 to 2014, says Ryan would throw plastic containers at her head when he was angry, but the abuse was more often verbal. “He called me ‘fucking stupid’ more times than I can count, in front of the whole staff—screaming at me at the top of his lungs.”
Jessica Ryan (no relation to Patrick), an assistant manager who overlapped with Corcoran, says Ryan had “screaming bouts” in which he’d pepper staff with personal insults. ”I mean, completely belittling an individual in front of other people. And for the most part, these were women.”
At times, the chef would get overwhelmed by tickets spitting out of the kitchen printer or angry about how they’d been rung in and start throwing them in the trash. Sometimes, he’d throw complete or nearly complete dishes—plates and all—off the pass onto the floor. Rama recalled a particularly brutal incident after the restaurant debuted a new menu.
“The kitchen was having a hard time keeping up with the orders. They weren’t used to these new presentations and these new dishes, and he literally got so mad that he scooped everything that was in the window pass directly into the trash can, probably wasting close to $600 worth of food in that one sweep.”
Dixon, who worked at the restaurant for more than five years, saw those incidents as some of the biggest red flags. “We’re busy, we’re going down in flames, and here you are punishing us by throwing our guests’ food away, which is punishing them and punishing the kitchen, because they have to make it all again … That was the one big, huge moment where I was like, ‘I’m working with a psychopath.’ Who would sabotage their own business like that?”
In his statement to The Pitch, Ryan acknowledged that he “spent many years as undiagnosed and unmedicated bipolar.” He says he’s since pursued medication and therapy, but “I’m still not perfect and I know that I never will be. What I do know is that I try to be better each and every day of my life—some days are easier than others, but the intention is always present.”
But employees attribute the toxic culture at Port Fonda to more than Ryan’s bipolar disorder, which was well-known among staff, and substance abuse. Andrea Peterson, who worked as a server and bartender for about two and a half years, says Davila could be just as volatile at times. She remembered running a few minutes late to one of her brunch shifts: “He fucking threw a chair across the room and kicked a table, and he yelled at me, like, in my face.”
Johnny Reynolds, Ryan’s sous chef for the first three years of operation, says the restaurant cultivated a “very barbarian style of management” and that he still struggled with guilt about his role in it. “I remember one instance in particular, when we had a guy, he was going to be a kitchen manager. He wasn’t doing very well. He wasn’t managing the kitchen the way that we wanted … So I gave him an impossible task of making jambalaya in 30 minutes. And when he didn’t complete that task, I fired him. I sent him straight out, that’s it.”
Reynolds attributes some of his behavior at the time to Ryan’s abuse and aggression. He says he felt physically threatened by Ryan on multiple occasions. Reynolds drank heavily during shifts to get through the stress of the job. Late in Reynolds’ tenure, his wife became pregnant, and he was working so often, he hardly saw her. That was a turning point. Two months before her due date, he put in his notice. He didn’t like the person he’d become. “Port Fonda ruined my career. Most certainly ruined my love of the career. Absolutely, absolutely destroyed it.”
The atmosphere in the kitchen didn’t seem to improve after Reynolds left. Reid Smith, a kitchen manager from 2018–2019, recalls a tense atmosphere where, at best, Ryan would deliberately intimidate his staff. At worst, he would lash out in profanity-laden tirades.
“He would just go off, and that happened a lot, where one thing would trigger it and then he would just rant. And there’s nothing that you can do. It’s not a rational thing, and you just have to sit there and deal with it.”
Many employees, like Reynolds, stayed at Port Fonda for years despite the stress and abuse. The money could be good. The staff leaned on each other through the challenges. And on good days, Ryan could be charismatic and fun. He had regulars who loved him. He knew how to make diners feel like the center of the universe.
One server, who asked to remain anonymous, worked at Port Fonda for more than six years. She says she knew she should have left sooner, but felt bonded to her coworkers like family. “I always compare Port Fonda to a toxic relationship that I was in, where I was with this partner that treated me horribly and manipulated me on the daily and did everything that you wouldn’t want in a partner. But somehow, some way, I had Stockholm syndrome and would always come back.”
“There will never be a Black person working in this restaurant.”
If Port Fonda was hostile to employees in general, it could be even more hostile to certain demographic groups. Multiple employees say they heard Ryan express anti-Black sentiments in particular during their tenure. Sometimes, the language was coded—for example, referring to tables of Black diners as “Mondays” or “Canadians.” Other times, it was overt.
Reynolds says Ryan had a “massive bias” against African Americans. “A few times, and I mean, candidly, without humor involved or any even like dark humor involved, he would say: ‘There will never be a Black person working in this restaurant.’”
Corcoran confirmed that racism influenced the restaurant’s hiring practices. She says she felt that she wasn’t allowed to hire Black servers: “He told me someone was the wrong color once.” Corocoran and two other employees also described seeing a large confederate flag hanging in Ryan’s condo.
“There were definitely racist remarks made,” says Dixon. “It’s pretty prevalent in the restaurant industry, and definitely anti-Black statements were made. Definitely by Patrick. We would talk about it later, like, ‘Did you catch that? Was that actually said?’”
“I want you to hire people I want to fuck.”
Young women had an easier time getting hired at the restaurant—but that could be its own curse. Korl Cusick, a server from July 2019 to June 2020, recalled coworkers laughing about how the restaurant would “only hire pretty people.” A glance around the floor at Port Fonda would confirm that: The majority of servers were female, and all were young and attractive.
“When I would interview people and then take applications to Jamie [Davila], the first question was, ‘Which one’s hottest?’” says Rogers. Jessica Ryan says that while she was never explicitly instructed to hire based on looks, Patrick Ryan and Davila would frequently remark on an applicant’s attractiveness, making it clear who they wanted on staff. And Corcoran recalled a large-bodied server she’d hired who Patrick Ryan fired two weeks later because she wasn’t “on brand.”
“He called her ‘fat’ in a manager meeting,” she says. “I was like, ‘What can I do to stop having to rehire people?’ And he was like, ‘I want you to hire people I want to fuck.’”
Looks-based discrimination is common—even tolerated—in the restaurant industry. The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employee discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, but not based on appearance in general (a loophole that keeps places like Hooters in business). But the looks-based hiring that took place at Port Fonda wasn’t just about staying “on brand.”
Employees say they witnessed rampant sexual harassment, primarily instigated by Ryan and Davila but occasionally by other male staff. The harassment occurred both inside and outside the restaurant via social media and included sexual innuendo, offensive or crude sexual remarks, sexist comments, and unwanted physical contact.
Peterson recalled a sexually charged atmosphere, where degrading comments about women—both staff and patrons—were constant. “[Patrick and Jamie] would be like, ‘Oh, look at that hot piece of ass that walked in the door,’ just very machismo bullshit like that,” she says. Corcoran remembered Ryan saying, of an attractive 20-year-old server: “I would do coke off her asshole.”
Staff recall “handsy” and “grabby” behavior, where Ryan and Davila would frequently touch female staff, kiss them on the cheeks or foreheads or caress their shoulders. Emily Overton had been training as a server and bartender for three days when she witnessed Davila grab a young female server “by her hips from the back and pulled her in and was humping her on the floor.” She quit on the spot.
“The industry is always like that, you joke around and you spend a lot of time together,” Peterson says. “But there’s a huge difference between joking around and actually harassing people.”
The rise of social media has blurred the line between work and personal life in many industries, but in restaurants—which typically lack HR departments—the line can seem especially hazy. Cusick, who was 21 at the time, thought it was strange when Ryan followed her on Instagram from both the Port Fonda account and his personal account. She’d never had a boss follow her on social media before. Initially, Ryan’s interactions on her posts were fairly innocuous—a “like” here, an emoji there. Then the DMs started—friendly at first.
“At one point, my ex and I had broken up, and that’s when the comments started to get a bit weirder, more sexual,” Cusick says.
In Instagram messages between Ryan and Cusick reviewed by The Pitch, he’d respond to her Instagram stories from both accounts, complimenting her appearance or outfits. On a throwback photo of her as a child: “I want that on a t-shirt.” On a TikTok of her dancing: “Would basically pay for more of these.” And once, not in response to anything: “Missing your smile!”
Cusick didn’t see Ryan at every shift, but when she did, he would make similar comments. Once, while closing, Ryan brought a joint downstairs and offered it to Cusick while rubbing her shoulders. “I left pretty soon afterwards,” she says. “I didn’t really know what to think. I sat in my car for a minute and then went home and was like, ‘Okay, just gonna brush that one off again.’”
When quarantine started in March, Ryan sent her a message, again from his personal account: “Lemme cook for you and some friends.” Cusick declined, saying she was going out of town. Her response was warm and polite. She usually made a point of responding—sometimes with a cursory emoji or a “like”—because he was her boss.
“It made me feel like my job was at risk if I didn’t respond or engage,” she says. “It made me really uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to make it awkward and I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want my job to be at risk. At the time, getting a job at Port Fonda was a really big deal. Patrick had a lot of connections and if you worked there, you could go work for a bigger-name restaurant. It was a good networking position.”
It’s not verboten for a boss to follow an employee on social media. But when the business is an independent restaurant with an influential chef-owner—and no clear protocol for reporting harassment—the balance of power is enormously tilted. In a tightly connected industry with high turnover, employees are often afraid to speak out publicly. They never know who their next boss might be.
To server Shara Calandrino, the Baldwin uniforms and server training tests made the restaurant feel “very corporate.” But the restaurant never had the structure of a corporate restaurant, and employees say they felt like any complaints would lead to termination. ”There was this feeling that you could get fired at any moment,” Calandrino says, “and that’s one of the reasons why I left.”
Managers at Port Fonda say they tried at various times to institute some structure—to curtail substance abuse, to fire problem employees, to minimize employees’ exposure to Ryan and Davila.
Wright, who was hired as Port Fonda’s general manager in 2015, says, “I had many conversations with Patrick and Jamie about how I was the fresh start. I was the one that was going to turn it around and how I was going to put people in line.”
It didn’t happen. In 2017, Ryan was nominated for a prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest—an accolade the restaurant frequently referenced in its advertising. Wright says she saw a shift in the way Ryan talked about his work after the award, but his behavior didn’t really change.
“He’d be like, ‘I’m a James Beard nominated chef and it’s supposed to be a professional environment,’ and he would come down[stairs], he would get everybody hammered, and then he would be mad about people drinking his booze and costing him money. And it just was never clear what he wanted.”
Still, Wright stayed at Port Fonda for five years. She helped close down the kitchen when COVID-19 restrictions forced the restaurant to shut down. After staff finished cleaning that night, Wright says she and Ryan cried together. They hugged. Then he ran both of his hands up the back of her sweater.
“It’s been normal for way too long”
In Westport, the blinds on Port Fonda’s windows have been drawn since June. The restaurant had offered curbside pick-up orders throughout May and had briefly reopened for patio dining in June, but within weeks, a staff member had tested positive for COVID-19.
On Sunday, June 21, Ryan met with three managers, including Wright, and informed them that as soon as enough staff tested negative, Port Fonda would reopen for full service, including indoor dining. Ryan delivered an ultimatum: Staff could get on board with the plan, or he would find new people that would. By Wednesday, June 24, Ryan had fired the managers via text message and told them he’d changed the locks at Port Fonda.
As of this writing, the restaurant has not yet announced an official reopening date. On January 5, in response to a customer question on the restaurant’s Instagram page, the Port Fonda account replied, “Still waiting for the right time! Spring sounds really nice.”
When it does reopen, it seems likely to be Ryan’s major focus. Although the chef was contracted to develop The Town Company restaurant and accompanying “cellar saloon” El Gold for Hyatt’s Hotel Kansas City, his affiliation with both venues ended in January 2021. The hotel’s general manager, Patrick Baldwin, declined to comment on “specific personnel matters” when asked about the reason for Ryan’s departure.
Ryan’s apology and his staff’s complaints are coming during a sea-change for the restaurant industry. Over the past few years, high-profile chefs across the country have faced increased scrutiny and public backlash—Momofuku’s David Chang for his rage and violent rhetoric, the Food Network’s Mario Batali and celebrity chef John Besh for sexual assault and harassment. Even self-professed “nice guy” chef Danny Bowien, who had spoken publicly about the profession’s machismo and toxicity, failed to protect his employees from the same.
Wright says she remembered hearing Ryan talk about the Mario Batali news when it broke—about how the climate in restaurants was shifting in a way that warranted more careful behavior. But if Ryan was aware of the culture shift, he didn’t seem able to locate himself within it.
As the hospitality industry grapples with how to rebuild from COVID-19, many industry workers say labor issues and restaurant culture need to be part of the conversation. “There shouldn’t be a pass on toxic behavior or misogyny or sexual harassment,” says Rama. “That shouldn’t be something that’s normal. And it’s been normal for way too long, this hyper testosterone-fueled pirate mentality.”
Ryan and Davila may have kept that “pirate mentality” alive at Port Fonda, but they’re not unique among the restaurant industry in Kansas City, nor the restaurant industry in general. Most Port Fonda employees interviewed for this story described the restaurant’s culture as unusually intense, but not especially novel. Sure, it was the “weirdest,” “craziest,” “most toxic” place they’d ever worked—but they’d worked weird and toxic industry jobs before.
“There are plenty of restaurants across the country whose staff could describe unwanted sexual advances, being berated to the point of tears, and witnessing plateware being thrown across a kitchen in a fit of rage,” former bar manager Milissa Crawford wrote in an email to The Pitch. “And that’s exactly the problem: We have become so complacent with, so used to seeing this in restaurants and bars that speaking out against it will instantly brand a red ‘A’ onto your chest. It is hospitality industry culture that we do not bite the hand that feeds us because we are all easily replaceable.”
“Patrick Ryan is not the exception,” says Megan Brigance. She left unspoken whether he was the rule.
The above illustrations are an artist’s interpretation of the events and are not meant to reflect, in detail, specific people or situations. If you have further information on this story, feel free to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org