We've Lived in Bars and Danced on Tables


This story might not have much resonance unless you, like many Reasonoids, live in Washington, DC. The names won't be familiar. But the jist will be: the city is aiming to reverse the gentrification-fed trend of bars by requiring all but a few establishments in the hopping Adams Morgan neighborhood to become restaurants.

The council measure, called the Adams Morgan Moratorium Zone, would limit the number of tavern licenses in the area to 10. The city would allow the number of taverns to drop to 10 through attrition, rather than by revoking licenses already issued.

Patrick's association, which represents most of the restaurants, wants the council to reject the moratorium and to rethink the food sales law. Otherwise, he said, many restaurants will close. "If they enforce everything, you are going to have 60 vacancies," Patrick said.

Some restaurant owners say their businesses can survive only as taverns because Adams Morgan does not attract the daytime crowds that could help them sell more food.

Under District law, restaurants serving alcohol must get $2,000 a seat or 45 percent of their annual revenues from food sales.

The Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration is conducting an audit of restaurants to see whether they comply with the law. Adams Morgan restaurant owners say they suspect that smaller restaurants throughout the city will fail, crippling other neighborhood commercial strips such as the H Street and U Street districts.

Does anyone live in a town or city that's passed some similar edict?

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  1. Not unless you count Tampa’s war against nude bars.

  2. Excellent Cat Power reference, David.

  3. I live in Wilmington, NC, and the laws here have some similarities to this (I’m not sure if they are state or local, and this is my general understanding- I don’t know the exact wording of the laws). Bars that serve liquor must be private, but they are exempt from this requirement if they are restaurants (some stated percentage of sales are from food). Beer/wine bars are exempt. The whole “private” thing is applied pretty loosely, though. Most bars have a sign-in sheet at the front door for “guests”.

  4. 🙁 I’m not from DC, but I have a soft spot for their bars/Adams Morgan district 🙂

    My home town has viele bars per capita, so the common council passed a moritorium on new bars, limiting them to locations where bars are currently. If a bar closes and is replaced by something else, it may not re-become a bar.
    So sad…

  5. A “gentrification-fed trend” of restaurants turning into sports bars?

    Really? Gentrification-fed?

  6. There’s a bar here in SE Florida that allows you to smoke cigars, indoors, even though smoking indoors at bars and restaurants is technically illegal. This is because they serve just enough food. Or maybe it’s because they don’t serve enough food. I don’t know. Food has something to do with it, which is its only tenuous link to the story above. That is all.

  7. I lived in a New England town that had been dry under Blue Laws since prohibition. When they finally lifted the alcohol ban, the town regulators required that in order to serve booze the customer had to order food. One of the fine entrepreneurs of the town came up with a solution. Your drink came with one meatball on a toothpick for an additional quarter.

    And it was a damn good meatball!

  8. Nearly all Pennsylvania liquor licenses include a must-serve-food requirement. I don’t know if there’s a proportional requirement as per here, but even the dive-est of dive bars (hello, Dirty Frank’s) is equipped bring you a microwaved hot dog or pan-fried cheeseburger.

  9. that’s pretty rough, my friend who goes to GW law school just got an apartment in Adams Morgan for the easily accessible night life. Oops!

  10. Im not sure of the exact laws but Louisville, KY has (at least) two types of liquor licenses, one for restaurants and one for bars. To qualify for the restaurant one, 50% of your revenue must come from food. There is a distance limit on bar licenses, basically the main entrance cant be within xxx feet of a currently existing bar license.

    A crackdown on restaurant licenses was done a few years back. One place came in at under 25% on the first audit, they had 6 months or something to get their food sales up. Im pretty sure they didnt make it and lost their license (it was a dance club, that tried to have a restaurant in the front to make it work – Im pretty sure they are gone, but I dont know if it was due to this or just because they went away). They would have been okay if they could have counted cocaine sales as food.

    Was an interesting court case about the distance though. Judge ruled it wasnt straight line, but walking distance, thus 2 bars could be across the street from each other if the nearest crosswalk was far enough away.

  11. Bring in Riese Restaurants and everything will be supercool and all right.

  12. “…..but even the dive-est of dive bars (hello, Dirty Frank’s) is equipped bring you a microwaved hot dog or pan-fried cheeseburger.”

    We’re going to limit your access to booze if we have to give you food poisoning in the process, dammit.

  13. My old college town had a similar law put into place–some percentage of food/liquor must be met, but I don’t remember the number or the metrics. The bar I frequented gamed the system by having bar-food available on Friday nights. For a $5 cover you got 5 tokens good for domestic beer or well drinks and access to the buffet. Wings and eggrolls and the like.

    It was hugely popular. $5 gets you 5 G&Ts and a meal? In a college town?

  14. Pro Libertate | July 10, 2007, 9:17am | #

    Not unless you count Tampa’s war against nude bars.

    God Bless Joe Redner!

  15. “Under District law, restaurants serving alcohol must get $2,000 a seat or 45 percent of their annual revenues from food sales.”

    WTF? Would anyone care to explain the rationale behind such a requirement? Is there some unspecified advantage (like cost of license, or tax rate, or open-on-Sundays) which makes a restaurant/bar license so much more preferable that the government must ration the licenses?

  16. gorgonzola’s foil –
    I went to college in central Pennsylvania and there were all of 4 bars in the town, all of which were also restaurants. I found this practice to be strange and thought maybe it was a local thing… guess not.

  17. In college, my school provided funding for club-related parties, but they didn’t want people to simply buy kegs with it. So they put a restriction on the alcohol-to-food ratio at college-funded events. It was something like one pound of food for every 4 drinks, though I don’t remember the exact numbers.

    Anyway, to get around the restriction, people would buy 10 bags of potatoes and put ’em in the corner while they had their parties.

  18. Easily solved — the bars should just form a partnership with Ben’s Chili Bowl. The sale of half-smokes just when Bill Cosby is in town should save half a dozen joints.

    BTW, is there really any serious H Street corridor development at long last, or is that just some delusional Post reporter’s style section story based on two non African American businesses that won’t make it six months?

  19. Reinmoose,

    If you PAs bar/restaurant thing is strange, check out their case law.

  20. ed | July 10, 2007, 9:32am | #

    There’s a bar here in SE Florida that allows you to smoke cigars, indoors, even though smoking indoors at bars and restaurants is technically illegal.

    Florida’s smoking ban covers restaurants and bars selling a certain amount of food.

    So your, “Or maybe it’s because they don’t serve enough food” is technically correct.

    I see most of the bars around here have stopped serving food altogether since the threshold is somewhat vague and easily crossed.

    Others will let you order out and get subs or pizza etc delivered. Some won’t do that for fear of offending the Licensing gods.

  21. Does anyone live in a town or city that’s passed some similar edict?

    The entire state of NH lives under the “50% food” rule. There are no pure taverns in NH. See RSA 178:21.

  22. The Free State Project has its work cut out for it. (They also need to get rid of the state monopoly on liquor stores!)

  23. Back in my youth the bars in Buffalo had to sell food in order to sell drinks. This led to the bars competing for customers by offering great loss leader food. Some of the best food was in places near the rail yards and factories were the workers could cash their paychecks.

  24. JLM- I’m in Charlotte, and I can tell you that as far as I know that’s a state law, enforced by the local beverage commissions. An establishment that makes less than 30% of its revenue from food sales must be permitted as a private club, must sell memberships (even if only for a dollar), and must keep a record of every patron that walks through the door. I bartended for a restaurant a few years back that was audited and forced to become a private club because of the brisk business we did in liquor sales. It was a royal pain in the ass getting all of our customers to pay a buck and sign in at the door, and I am convinced that was a significant factor in the demise of that establishment a year later.

  25. Brian, that’s the best thing ever. My school just engaged in rampant fraud. Something like 15 gallons of orange juice per party, bought then returned, the money used to buy alcohol, the then OJ receipt submitted to the college. The Budget Committee was totally in on it too.

  26. when will they get around to breathing & other bodily function? just you wait…

  27. carbondale, IL did the reducing-licences via attrition thing.

    Southern Illinois University-Carbondale once had an alarming reputation as a party school – to the point that the university would shut down over halloween to prevent the riots.

  28. dpotts- I’ve been here for over 11 years now, and it seems that the relative level of compliance to these laws by local establishments increases/decreases cyclically. When I first moved here, every liquor bar seemed to require that you buy a membership (I think there is technically a 3 day period before it is active, presumably to prevent it from becoming nothing more than a cover charge), or you had to have somebody there to vouch for you being their guest. For a while it got so that a lot of bars didn’t even bother with sign in sheets, but lately it seems that a lot of places are requiring that everybody sign in at the door again. I assume that this is driven by how much the local beverage commission has been harassing the bars lately.

  29. Why all the hand wringing, guys? Of course the government knows exactly the right number of bars to have in the neighborhood.

  30. I wonder what Dan T’s new handle is, because this guy is clearly a spoof.

  31. In the Soviet Union at the turn of eighties, well before Gorbachev’s ‘temperance’ campaign, low-end places wouldn’t serve you any low-end alcohol unless you buy some low-end food too, most commonly a sprat sandwich.

    however, that was rather an unofficial directive, not law.

    and I thought we’ll never see that sort of thing again…

  32. BTW, is there really any serious H Street corridor development at long last, or is that just some delusional Post reporter’s style section story based on two non African American businesses that won’t make it six months?

    It’s real. Joe Englert bought up a bunch of property and built 4 bars on H between 10th and 13th. A weirdly pleasant coffee shop opened a few more blocks west toward Union station. The bars never get as packed as the ones on U St or Adams Morgan, but they’re definitely on the upswing. Check out Craig’s list and you’ll see H St houses or rentals priced 30-40% below the ones in those neighborhoods.

  33. Yeah, I read an article about that some months ago. But until I see significant numbers of gay white men who’ve been priced out of Dupont Circle moving into the neighborhood, I remain a skeptic. Still, remembering the riots in the 60s and having watched how long it took (and is still taking) the 14th Street corridor to make a comeback of sorts, I’d be very happy to see H Street redeveloped.

  34. When I moved to my town about 10 years ago, it was nearly dry. No liquor stores at all, no liquor sales at grocery stores, no bars, only some restaurants with liquor licenses. Since I moved here, some of the grocery stores have been allowed to start selling booze, a wine store has opened, and quite a few restaurants that are really bars that sell food have opened. We’ve loosened, rather than tightened up.
    It may be that I have driven the town to drink.

    (We’re in an urban area. It’s not like I couldn’t go right across the town’s border before to visit a bar or liquor store. I live right near the edge of town, and I could walk to 2 or 3 liquor stores and 8 or 9 bars right along the border. It was a silly ban that predated the Volstead Act. In fact one of our neighboring towns started as a place for our town’s citizens to go drink and gamble and is still the home of many, many bars.)

  35. DC regulating itself into dire straits? You’re kidding me, that never happens. Nope, never.

  36. The wine shop Best Cellars ran into trouble thanks to a similar in Virginia a few summers ago. BC ran a small bar selling wine by the glass to help boost sales. Eventually the state cracked down on them for not selling enough food to go with it. To make matters worse, the state forced them to apply for a brand new alcohol license rather letting them just shut down the bar. The process took at least three months, during which time the store paid rent on valuable Clarendon real estate with virtually no income.

  37. David, this is a case of Washington D.C. now adopting a policy that Washington State discarded.

    In the past (for, like decades) the Washington State Liquor Board had two types of licenses: taverns and bars. A tavern license allowed you to sell beer and wine only. To get a bar (i.e., hard liquor) license you had to provide food and have a percentage of your total sales from food. I believe it was 50%. They also made some distinctions about what they defined ‘food’ as, i.e., real prepared meals.

    About 6 years ago the liquor board dropped the percentage requirement. Now to get a bar license you just have to make food ‘available’, but no requirement to sell a certain amount. This resulted in a large number of establishments changing from strictly taverns to bars.

    Why they dropped the percentage requirement is uncertain. Of course, the liquor board DOES charge an establishment way, way more for a hard alcohol license than for just beer and wine. (I think it’s like 10 times as much). Maybe they were just looking to maximize their own revenue from license fees.

  38. Here’s another Virginia horror story:

    I went to college in Richmond for a couple of years, and the bars down there would charge a cover that included access to the “buffet”. This was two hot plates with some unidentifiable sludge, covered in flies year-round. Technically, they served food, wether or not the patrons chose to eat it. Of course, I’m sure that wasn’t a health hazard of any kind.

  39. Know of any jurisdictions that have a rule the other way around? In order to operate a restaurant, you have to serve liquor, or some minimum proportion of liquor? Or that forbade bars from being converted into non-bars? Or some similar rule designed to increase the number of bars or liquor sales?

  40. “Under District law, restaurants serving alcohol must get $2,000 a seat or 45 percent of their annual revenues from food sales.”

    So take out all but one chair and sell hotdogs to the person in it.

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