I enjoyed reading Mike Seely’s great tavern roundup/elegy this week, as well as his argument that taverns foster low-key drinking and conversation that wouldn’t happen>"/>
I enjoyed reading Mike Seely’s great tavern roundup/elegy this week, as well as his argument that taverns foster low-key drinking and conversation that wouldn’t happen in bars with full spirits licenses. But this week’s restaurant review brought me to a different conclusion: The state should make it easier, not harder, for bars to sell hard liquor.
Two visits to Kurrent, which I thought had a successful bar and an unsuccessful restaurant, crystallized my thoughts on a larger problem with Seattle’s restaurant industry: Too many bars in town serve good mixed drinks and crappy food.
For the Washington State Liquor Control Board to grant a business a license to sell spirits as well as beer and wine, it must serve four full meals and maintain the equipment to prepare the food. This is clearly a huge improvement over times past: As Seely reported in June 2006, the state no longer requires food to be a certain percentage of a restaurant’s sales -- and in fact, has relaxed the rules so far that places like The Baltic Room and Suite 410 can get away with a “menu” of overpriced frozen meals and a microwave.
Yet the Liquor Control Board still maintains a distinction between “taverns” (i.e., bars with beer & wine licenses and no need to serve food) and “restaurants” (the board’s term) serving spirits, beer, and wine. By declining to set up a third category for bars-with-full-bars, the board encourages too many businesses to try to be good at too many things. Disregarding all quality judgments, how many people do you know go to the Alibi Room or 22 Doors for a full dinner? Did you even know they serve full meals?
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the Liquor Control Board sabotages both cocktail bars and restaurants with this useless food requirement by requiring bars to waste their money (and ours) maintaining food-service operations. Full kitchens are expensive to build and sustain. The cost of perishable foodstuffs really drags down operating costs -- vodka keeps indefinitely; meat doesn’t. Labor costs also are affected, because most bartenders really shouldn’t serve double duty as cooks. And by making good bars try to be bad restaurants, too, it keeps customers needing food out of better restaurants nearby.
There are, of course, places that have made a success at both cocktails and food, like Tango or Chez Shea/Shea’s Lounge. And I’m heartened by the recent appearance of innovative cocktails-and-snacks places like Oliver’s Twist, Copper Gate, and Licorous. But the successes are outweighed by the number of bars that struggle to do everything right and stay in business. Even Vessel, which became one of the city’s premier cocktail bars the moment it opened its doors last year, opened with a full menu and quickly downscaled to light bar food.
It’s time for the Liquor Control Board to discard altogether the food requirement for businesses wanting to serve spirits. This is no diss on the noble tavern, or any desire to see it disappear. And if there are people who seek out whiskey-free bars in order to control the pace of their drinking, that’s fine. But most of us can alter our pace to reflect whether we’re sipping a Bud Lite or a Manhattan.
If the Liquor Control Board really wants to promote public safety by reducing alcohol-related accidents, it can work with the city and the county to make cheap post-bar taxis available or increase late-night public transportation. Forcing great bars to sell shitty food isn’t the solution.