New tavern license a rarity

April 24, 2014

Photo: Julia Jester

“It is the scene of more than a hundred restaurants, jazz and disco dance spots, as well as homosexual bars, pizza parlors, movie houses, fast food joints and ice cream parlors. More than 115 liquor licenses have been issued for the 10-block square area. Like most urban areas, Georgetown is also the scene of traffic jams, overflowing trash barrels, vandalism, muggings, arson, and petty and grand larcenies.” 

The New York Times, September 25, 1982 


This article was written seven years before the Georgetown neighborhood’s first liquor license moratorium was implemented to control nightlife in the area, and decades before it became the upscale shopping district it is today.

Georgetown recently made local headlines when three liquor licenses and one rare tavern license became available on April 10. The tavern license was made available when El Centro changed its license status from a bar to a restaurant. Only existing restaurants in the area can apply for the license—Smith Point and George both applied, according to the Washington Business Journal. Smith Point, if it passes qualifications and a 45-day public comment period, will receive the license.

Liquor licenses are hard to come by today in Georgetown. All that remains of the vibrant nightlife of 1982 Georgetown is six bars, such as the Tombs, and several restaurants that operate as de-facto bars, such as Bandolero, that are frequented by university students and young professionals.

Karen Cruse, a member of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, lived on the west side of Georgetown when the situation was coming to a head.

“It was just out of control,” Cruse said. “There was vandalism … rowdiness … public urination … crime, and nonexistent parking, so we said we’ve had enough.”

Cruse joined others in the neighborhood in protesting new liquor licenses by going to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Cruse said that a license has to be “appropriate” under certain conditions, but that they could protest any license, albeit one at a time.

Around that time, the city was rewriting its ABC regulations, which would allow for moratoriums.

“When the mayor signed in the legislation, Georgetown had its petition for the moratorium all signed, sealed, ready to go, we ran it down to the ABC Board [and] slapped it on the desk, so we were the very first ones in the city,” Cruse said.

The Georgetown Moratorium Zone allows for 68 restaurant licenses and an additional restriction allows only six tavern licenses. These laws exclude hotels and other specific areas, such as Georgetown Park and Washington Harbor.

The number of restaurant licenses was increased by seven in 2010 when the moratorium was last renewed, though the tavern license limit went unchanged.

The license that Smith Point has applied for is only the second that has been made available in the past 20 years, according to Washington City Paper.

El Centro decided to release the tavern license to refocus attention on its food, as it is part of a larger restaurant company, Richard Sandoval Restaurants. Having a restaurant license requires that El Centro get a certain proportion of revenue from food.

“[Sandoval’s] food is the star,” said El Centro General Manager Steven Chiang. “We don’t want to ever distract from that.” El Centro opened in September 2013 in the building on Wisconsin previously occupied by the bar Third Edition.

“I know taking over the old Third Edition watering hole there was a lot of concern about El Centro coming through,” Chiang said. “[The license change] wasn’t anything that was forced upon us, we did it by choice. It was just complying with the community.” While Chiang says El Centro looks forward to being a positive member of the community, he does believe the liquor license restrictions make being a new business in Georgetown difficult.

Molly Quigley, a member of the Georgetown Business Association, has worked at 1789 Restaurant for 16 years. While she appreciates the intention of ensuring neighborhood-friendly businesses, she also is not sure a moratorium is the best way to achieve that goal.

“It’s very restricting on businesses,” said Quigley. “Places that want to open in D.C., they look at Georgetown because of our reputation, and then they realize how difficult it is to do business in Georgetown. So we lose a lot of great restaurateurs and other businesses to other neighborhoods.”

Because of this effect, Georgetown may also lose attention as a destination on weekend nights, according to Quigley.

Tom Birch, a commissioner on Georgetown’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission, on the other hand, doesn’t believe that the moratorium has had a negative effect on business in Georgetown. He maintained that the moratorium was successful in its goal of maintaining a commercial mix in the Georgetown area between restaurants, bars, and retail.

“If there has been a negative effect, I don’t see it,” he said. “I think so long as it has the effect of maintaining the effect of a good balance of businesses then it continues to have a utility.”

Additional reporting by Julia Jester.

Note: A previous version of this article said the number of restaurant licenses was increased from six to thirteen in 2010.

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