To thirsty patrons, D.C.’s Tequila Grill is perhaps best known for its prolonged happy hour, lasting from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. every weekday, when margaritas are marked down to just $2.50.

But to the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA), the subterranean Tex-Mex saloon on K Street NW is known for something else: being an easy mark.

“As an investigator, if you can’t find an establishment that serves a minor, you go to Tequila Grill,” said ABRA investigator Juliana Tengen, testifying before the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board on Jan. 5.

In fact, investigators have dropped in on Tequila Grill so many times that the backlogged ABC Board is struggling to keep up with the violations.

Last March, the board slapped Tequila Grill with a $4,000 fine following two documented incidents of underage drinking that had occurred more than a year earlier—in January and February of 2003. The board further threatened to suspend the restaurant’s liquor license for five days if it learned of any other violations within the next 12 months.

Of course, by the time that punishment was finally handed down, the venue had already been cited for another violation—only that incident wouldn’t come before the board until this year.

Last week, the board finally heard the case of a bust back on Feb. 27, 2004, in which ABRA investigators teamed with Metropolitan Police Department officers conducted a compliance check of the establishment, “observed four under age patrons in possession of alcoholic beverages,” and discovered that “[t]wo of the four patrons were in possession of fake identification cards that were of poor quality,” according to an ABRA report.

The four patrons—who, the report notes, had ordered up a total of 11 margaritas and five bottles of Miller Lite—were promptly arrested and transported to the 2nd District police station for processing. ABRA investigators, by contrast, had to wait about 10 months before presenting their case to the ABC Board.

ABRA’s written report of the incident, dated March 23, 2004, was prepared within 30 days of the actual incident. That’s in accordance with the agency’s “performance accountability” guidelines, says Jeff Coudriet, ABRA’s director of operations. From there, though, it can take weeks, and often months, for a case to come before the board.

In this instance, the snail’s pace of bureaucracy wasn’t the only thing holding up the proceedings. The February 2004 incident was originally slated for a November show-cause hearing. That’s when Tequila Grill owner Nasser Zolfaghari would have been given a chance to show the board why his license shouldn’t be yanked. Instead, Zolfaghari notified the board that he wasn’t gonna show. Zolfaghari would also fail to turn up at a rescheduled date in December. And again last week. (Zolfaghari also didn’t return phone calls for comment.)

It’s an effective technique: Zolfaghari’s absenteeism wound up delaying Tequila Grill’s eventual punishment for at least two months, albeit not indefinitely. Citing the owner’s apparent “unwillingness or inability” to make an appearance on Jan. 5, ABC Board Chair Charles Burger directed the panel to hear the case anyway. And the board wound up slapping Tequila Grill with another $4,000 fine—plus a whopping 15-day license suspension beginning Jan. 13. But not before learning of yet another old violation coming down the pike: a reported sale to a minor from May 2004.

If deemed valid, that incident would be Tequila Grill’s fourth “primary tier” sale-to-minor violation since 2003—an ominous number for fans of the four-hour happy hour. D.C. regulations are pretty specific when it comes to that frequency of rule-breaking: “For the fourth primary tier violation in four years, the ABC license shall be revoked.”

Of course, that fourth incident has yet to be scheduled for a hearing—even though some ABC Board members already have documentation of the incident in hand. It turns out the board had previously “tried to run these cases concurrently,” Burger announced on Jan. 5.

Unfortunately, he added, “that concurrence never occurred.”

ONE TOKA OVER THE LINE

D.C.’s very own Toka Cafe was featured this month on cable TV’s Fine Living network—specifically, in last week’s episode of The Insider’s List With Julie Moran, which first aired on Jan. 3. The show spotlighted the refurbished 3,300-square-foot English-basement-cum-ABC-licensed-establishment at 1140 19th Street NW, naming it one of the “10 Best Looking Restaurants in America.” No. 4, in fact. Suck on that, Tizi Melloul, with your Chicago cool and fancy-pants Italian-designed “ultra-modern bar accents.”

That Toka would earn such acclaim should come as no surprise. After all, owners Teresa Beeman and Nuri Yurt also own the Toka Salon haircutteries in Georgetown and the East End. But Toka was honored not only for its reported $1.2 million makeover, but also for its haute cuisine: “Bar menu items include yellow fin tuna tempura and grape leaves with duck confit,” reads Insider’s top-10 list, which is posted on Fine Living’s Web site.

Funny, about the closest thing to either fish or fowl available at Toka on Monday, Jan. 10, was a $7 plate of fried calamari.

It’s been months, in fact, since Toka Cafe—make that Toka Cafe & Lounge, according to bar receipts—has served anything other than standard bar food. None of the tables have place settings—only ashtrays. When the place is open—starting at around 4:30 p.m. on most days—red and blue lights above the front door illuminate the words “TOKA” and “LOUNGE,” while “RESTAURANT,” etched in smaller type, remains dark.

Aside from that dimly lit descriptor, the only other indication that Toka is an eatery at all, at least presently, is its restaurant-class liquor license.

Locally, Toka has received more publicity for its nonculinary operations. Its neighborhood newspaper, the Dupont Current, has printed numerous articles documenting the establishment’s continuing conflicts with both its next-door neighbor, Japanese eatery Sushi Kappo Kawasaki, and Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 2B.

In September, the ANC voted unanimously to protest the renewal of Toka’s liquor license, following complaints about the venue’s loud crowds and booming music—which, adjacent-business owner Michiko Kawasaki says, rattles the walls of her quiet sushi joint and chases away customers who are used to more a peaceful dining experience.

On some nights, Kawasaki reports, the clamor from patrons partying next door starts during peak dining time. “We are having such a loud, noisy DJ night,” she complained on Jan. 8. “Started about 8:30.”

A bouncer outside Toka later that night confirmed the presence of a DJ but refused S&T entry. “Private party,” he explained.

ANC 2B Commissioner Mike Silverstein has called Toka “an outlaw nightclub,” citing as further evidence several Internet-posted pictures of people dancing, mingling, and doing all sorts of other things inside the venue—including, as a Sept. 22 Current article so eloquently stated, “a shot of someone throwing up in a common toilet shared by both restaurants.”

Toka has made no secret of its nighttime activities. For weeks now, the venue has advertised its Saturday-night “Level” event, which features live spinning by one DJ Rajdeep—despite the fact that the ABC Board has never approved Toka to play anything more than background music.

Such a “change in the kind of music or entertainment provided,” as well as the “change from full-menu to snack menu,” are listed as violations of the District’s alcohol regulations and subject to civil fines. And last year, Toka was, in fact, cited by ABRA investigators for a number of violations, including noise, sale of alcohol to a minor, failure to have an ABC-licensed manager on duty, and failure to obtain approval for its change in music.

But thanks to Chapter 11, Toka has been able to avoid any significant penalties.

You probably wouldn’t know it now, looking around at some of the venue’s “best looking” amenities—including new flat-screen JVC televisions and a shiny high-tech Rock-Ola E-Rock Digital Downloading Jukebox—but Toka just recently emerged from bankruptcy after almost two years under federal protection from creditors.

Citing those financial difficulties last fall, Toka’s owners were allowed to forgo a $2,500 fine and received only a three-day suspension of their license, which was served out during a few slow weekdays. And since then, the club has taken full advantage of its former Chapter 11 status, which is intended to help keep creditors at bay while businesses get a chance to reorganize.

When new general manager Mary Marchetti came on aboard about four months ago, she says, she “fired everyone.” She has since assembled a new team of all ABC-certified bartenders and even has plans to turn Toka into a bona fide restaurant, complete with a new chef and a new menu.

That’s not to say, however, that Toka will be abandoning the nightlife that’s kept it viable. Marchetti has formally asked the ABC Board to sign off on Toka’s DJs and dancing—much to the ANC’s chagrin. And she plans to expand Toka’s nighttime offerings, too, by rolling out a new karaoke system as soon as she gets the board’s OK.

Neighbor Kawasaki is less then thrilled, having heard Marchetti testing out the new system late at night. “Every night she’s singing,” Kawasaki says. “It’s bad.”

Price Club: Stretching your dollar at D.C.’s night spots

Venue: Old Post Office Pavilion, 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

Event: Presidential Inaugural Entertainment Ball

Cost: $219 per nonrefundable “VIP Event All-Inclusive” ticket*

For a measly $12, you could endure the “brutally loud” noodlings of “North America’s most blistering improv artists,” including Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, at the Black Cat’s Noise Against Fascism concert. For $20, you could play Pin the Tail on the Elephant and engage in “Democrat v. Republican Thumb Wrestling” at “one of Washington’s chicest lounges,” 1223 Nightclub.

But, come on, this important date marks Round 2 of the Bush II administration. Act accordingly: Run up your own personal deficit for only $199 to $207 more and “receive star treatment” at HiBall Events’ Presidential Inaugural Entertainment Ball in the historic Old Post Office Pavilion—“an elegant, black-tie-optional gala” that’s “not your typical stodgy affair,” according to a flier.

Enjoy “[u]pgraded, top-shelf liquors,” “[h]eavy, premium cuisine,” “casino-style gambling,” and “a guest list that includes a prestigious array of influential players from entertainment and political worlds,” including footballer Lynn Swann, rocker J. Geils, and 2004 Olympic uneven-bars bronze medalist Courtney Kupets.

And don’t forget the politically monikered entertainment, courtesy of the recently reunited Presidents of the United States of America—that “buoyant, absurdist rock” group best known for its Clinton-era Top 40 hits, “Lump” and “Peaches.” Nearly a decade later, according to the band’s Web site, those ’90s classics “still hold up.”

*“Please note that the ticket price will go up at any time and without notice,” according to the event’s Web site.

—Chris Shott

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