Death of a Tavern

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The residents of my neighborhood have been very excited to watch construction progress being made on Shaw's Tavern, a gastropub located at the intersection of Florida Avenue NW and 6th street.  There aren't a lot of sit-down dining options in the area--a couple of Thai places, a bar and a bar/coffee shop, and one kebab place with great kebabs but glacial service and no atmosphere.  Don't get me wrong--residents are grateful for even this small number, given that it is approximately 400% more places to eat than we had a few years ago.  But we are still eager for a restaurant where you can sit down and order a drink and a full meal, all at one time.


Then Shaw's Tavern opened, and the excitement fizzled.  There was a hold up on the liquor license, due to two charity events that the tavern had held prior to securing their liquor license.  Apparently, they had failed to get the special one-day liquor license that DC requires for people without a permanent license to serve booze; allegedly, the manager (now fired) forged documents to get liquor distributors to provide him with booze.  At first, the delay was only supposed to be for a week; then we were told that the restaurant wouldn't be serving booze until at least September 15th, when the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration meets again.

Unfortunately, there are few dry Baptists living in the Bloomingdale/Eckington/Ledroit triangle; most people who want a meal, want to be able to get a drink to go with it.  On Friday, Shaw's announced via Facebook that they would be shutting down until they get their liquor license:

Shaw's Tavern is closing its doors from Saturday 27th of August. We could not survive without a liquor license. We will re -open when we are allowed to serve alcohol. To all of our 936 plus loyal fans and 30 dedicated employees, we thank you for your amazing support and understanding.

Unfortunately, this may well be a death sentence.  Despite the lack of competition on the fine-dining front, the restaurant was at best operating at 60% capacity most days.  The longer this stretches out, the less likely it is that they'll be able to reopen: the chef will have to get another job, the servers will go elsewhere. As Matt Yglesias notes, in DC


There's plenty of demand for bars and restaurants. There's plenty of space where bars and restaurants could open. There are plenty of people who need jobs. What's more, there are plenty of people who could use the increased social services that higher tax revenue would provide. Instead, we're doing this. Not just one restaurant shut down, but a sign to would-be entrepreneurs everywhere that their potential investments are much riskier than a superficial read of market conditions would suggest.

When a number of us lamented the shutdown on Twitter, we were met with people saying, in effect, that ABRA had to send a strong signal about following the rules.  I don't condone forging documents, if this indeed occurred.  But I don't see why ABRA has to send this particular signal about following the rules--or what terrible harms would follow if they didn't.


Punishing a restaurant owner for a liquor license violation with an open-ended maybe-we'll-give-you-a-license-maybe-we-won't delay is equivalent to giving someone the death penalty for a parking violation.  Moreover, it punishes the neighbors and the employees right along with the owner.

I've seen commenters and others suggesting that if they would forge liquor license paperwork, they might fake the health inspection data or other information.  But does this really follow?  The regulation in question is, not to put too fine a point on it, anti-competitive BS.  We wanted to get a friend to bartend for our wedding in order to save money (and have a friend bartend our wedding!), but doing so would have required us to get a one-day liquor license, as well as to buy the liquor from an authorized DC liquor distributor.  The cost of the license and the expensive DC booze would have ultimately cost us as much, or more, than using a caterer--which I've no doubt is exactly the point. This is pretty clearly rent seeking designed to protect caterers and local liquor distributors from competition, not a service to the citizens of DC, who might otherwise be served out-of-state poison at weddings.

In my humble opinion, in fact, all liquor licensing is useless; it mainly functions as either backdoor zoning control, or as a way for existing bar owners to protect themselves from competition.  But this rule is particularly egregious.

If you find out that someone you know parks illegally in their alley, do you really think that it's a short step to murdering their neighbors?  Health regulations have an obvious rationale that liquor licensing lacks, and there are also clear financial downsides to violating them openly (customers do not like seeing vermin running around your restaurant, or eating spoiled food.)  They're also vulnerable to detection on visual inspection: expired packaged goods or rat droppings will be seen by inspectors.  Obviously, most restaurants do violate health regulations in small ways, and some do so flagrantly.  But I'm not sure how closely that's correlated to . . . soft opening with unlicensed charity gigs, even with dodgy paperwork.

At any rate, the manager who allegedly did these things has been fired, and the owners have already lost a lot of money.  This seems like adequate punishment.  It's hard for me to believe that ABRA needs to kill viable establishments in an area that badly needs them, in order to save us from the scourge of . . . unlicensed cocktail parties.  It seems widely out of proportion to the potential harm.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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