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Cada Vez has no record of serious violence and even meets its annual food-sales quota (usually). Who cares about some prior conspiracy rap?

Last month, the ongoing feud between Northwest nightspot Cada Vez and its eatery-preferring neighbors hit a new level on the gotcha scale. Neighbors seeking to thwart the venue’s proposed expansion of hours and musical selections had earlier resorted to Big Brother–style video surveillance tactics to make their case against general manager Chao Charles Zhou & Co. (Show & Tell, 8/12). But opponents of the Vez held out until full-blown protest hearings in front of the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board to go for the jugular.

With Zhou on the stand and under oath on Oct. 19, Douglas Fierberg, attorney for the anti–Cada Vez forces, set up the stinging blow by asking the embattled operator if he’d ever been convicted of a crime. When Zhou answered no, Fierberg brandished a small stack of court papers indicating otherwise.

About two years ago, according to federal court records, Zhou pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of “Conspiracy to Commit Offenses Against the United States” for his participation in an illicit immigration scam. The records show that in 1996, a then-23-year-old Zhou accepted a free trip to China plus $10,000 in exchange for “posing as [one of] the fiancees of Chinese women…who were paying to be able to come to this country” and for filling out misleading applications with the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service.

Zhou, now 32, declined to discuss the specifics of the crime with S&T. But he describes Fierberg’s pulling out the criminal-history card as “very unprofessional.” That instance of youthful indiscretion, Zhou says, has “nothing to do with this whole issue.”

Fierberg disagrees: “It goes to whether or not the ABC Board can issue a license and count on the management to follow the law.”

The revelation of Zhou’s prior run-in with the law might not be so damning if Fierberg hadn’t also pointed out Zhou’s apparent forgetfulness about the whole illegal-alien-engagement scam on pertinent city documents.

Asked if he’d ever “been convicted of a misdemeanor during the last five (5) years or felony during the last ten (10) years,” Zhou checked the box marked “no” on an application for his ABC manager’s license, dated Nov. 14, 2003—“literally three weeks after he pleaded guilty to crimes against the United States,” as Fierberg puts it.

Score one for the protestants, who, up until that point, had struggled to come up with much substantial dirt on the U Street NW venue. But not for a lack of trying.

Some NIMBYs, including T Street NW resident Elwyn Ferris, have opposed the establishment since its first liquor-license application. The current debate is part of some neighbors’ contention that Cada Vez just isn’t the “[f]ine dining establishment” that original owners Earnest Simo and Kathleen Simo described in their revised application, approved back in 2001.

“We don’t see the establishment operating as a restaurant,” Ferris told the ABC Board last week. Rather, he charged, it operates more like a nightclub.

Albeit a nightclub with an earlier bedtime than some neighboring restaurants: Take Utopia, which, on a recent Saturday night, had long since ceased serving dinner yet remained open after 2 a.m. with live music by the jazzy Ed Hahn Quintet.

By that time, things were winding down at Cada Vez. Zhou, in fact, was standing out front, barring potential patrons from entry. “We’re closed,” he said, drawing puzzled looks from a duo of sharply dressed dudes who’d just hopped out of a white coupe.

“Everybody comes to the District thinking 3 o’clock is closing time,” Zhou tells S&T. That’s the standard for a lot of D.C. hangouts. But not Cada Vez, where the party is supposed to stop promptly at 2.

The earlier curfew isn’t Zhou’s choice. It’s just the time stipulated in the venue’s ABC-approved application—a document that remains at the center of the Cada Vez debate.

Since taking over day-to-day operations of the self-described “Full Service Restaurant, Lounge and Bar with Live Entertainment and Dancing” in 2003, Zhou has sought to break free from some of the more rigid specifics contained in that application. More than a year ago, he formally requested the ABC Board’s OK for a so-called substantial change, which would have allowed the venue to stay open an extra hour each night and to scrap the first owners’ self-imposed prohibition of rock and hiphop music.

But that proposal quickly met with stiff opposition from a gang of protesters, including members of the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission, the Dupont Circle Citizens Association, and a few ad hoc groups of nearby residents, who’ve gone to great lengths to sink Zhou’s plans.

Unlike other venues in the neighborhood that have come under intense public scrutiny recently, including Between Friends, Club U, and Kili’s Kafe, Cada Vez hasn’t generated any reports of serious violence. And despite neighbors’ complaints about the venue’s culinary cred, audits by the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) show the Vez meeting its annual 45 percent food-sales quota in both 2003 and 2004. As for 2005, well, the spot came up just short, at about 43 percent, according to ABRA. But no matter: Zhou has almost a whole year to go before D.C. Code mandates that restaurants actually comply with the regs, in September 2006.

Yet Zhou claims his place has been put through the regulatory wringer all the same. He counts about 180 inspections from various agencies over the past two years. “We’ve had ABRA visits. We’ve had Health Department visits. We’ve had fire-department visits, zoning-department visits—we even had Department of Public Works visits about our recycling plan,” says Zhou. “At the end of the day, they could not substantiate anything besides ‘Oh, you have a few people dancing outside of the box.’”

Ah yes, “dancing outside of the box”—perhaps the venue’s most heinous straying from the tenets of its original paperwork.

According to the Simos’ initial blueprint for the business, “Dancing will be provided on a 10 x 15 sq. ft. dance floor.”

Freeing up 150 square feet of floor space is easy enough; just push a bunch of tables and chairs to the side. But keeping grooving patrons from straying outside that space is a lot tougher.

On Sept. 14, Zhou was summoned to appear before the ABC Board after an ABRA investigator repeatedly witnessed customers shaking their respective thangs not within some specified section but all over Cada Vez.

Zhou’s attorney, Andrea Bagwell, acted a bit confused by regulators’ dancing-outside-the-designated-area charge: “What does that mean?” she asked the board. “It means you’re in violation,” answered Chair Charles Burger—a “major violation” at that, he later added, given the double-digit number of out-of-bounds booty shakers tallied up by the investigator on July 24.

Burger, it seems, looks at an old ABC application the way Samuel Alito reads the U.S. Constitution.

Bagwell didn’t dispute ABRA inspector Richard Coward’s claim that dancing had occurred within a larger, 18-by-13-foot space at the center of Cada Vez’s first floor, located directly under a spinning disco ball and massive sound and lighting rig overhead. She did, however, challenge his assertion that that particular space was, in fact, the definitive dance floor. Cada Vez, she said, had “no set area” for dancing. According to Bagwell, the region for rocking and swaying one’s body is more amorphous than anything. “Our dance floor shifts,” added Zhou.

Clarifying this roving-floor defense for S&T recently, Zhou explained that which section of tile is set aside for dancing often depends on the type of entertainment being offered and how crowded the place is. If there’s a band, Zhou & Co. usually block off a bar area near the rear of the venue, and the area for dancing is moved up toward the band, he says. If it’s a slower night, he adds, the dance floor might be split into two separate spaces on opposite sides of the performers.

No matter where exactly the dance floor might be on a given night, trying to confine dancers to those specific dimensions is a bit of a chore, says Zhou, who, according to an ABRA report, “stated that he hired two additional security personnel to help prevent patrons from stepping outside of the…dance area.” “Sometimes, we’ll see a substantial amount of people dancing outside of the box, and then we’ll just go over there and tap them on the shoulder,” he says. “People think I’m being ridiculous,” he told the board.

But Burger showed little signs of sympathy for Zhou’s patron-herding plight. “This isn’t rocket science,” Burger told him bluntly. If extra security and shoulder tapping don’t do the trick, Burger recommended, Zhou should find a way to somehow fence the free-roamers in. Specifically, he suggested that Zhou build a “dance cage.”

Zhou has yet to install such an enclosure. Maybe that’s because he’s plenty busy trying to deflect all the conspiracy-conviction talk.

At an ABC Board hearing last week, Bagwell successfully convinced the panel to clear the room of every member of the public, while Charles Lazar, Zhou’s lawyer in the federal case, discussed his client’s cooperation with the U.S. government.

Will the ABC Board cooperate with Zhou’s call for later hours and cranking the hiphop? Closing arguments in the protest hearing concluded last week with no indication of a specific timeline for the panel’s decision. Given the tenacity of his opponents, Zhou expects a continuing fight—um, to the death? “I’m assuming I’ll be stuck with this business model for the next 10, 20, 30 years—however long my neighbors live,” he says.—Chris Shott

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