Restaurateur Geoff Tracy, owner of two Northwest eateries, considers himself well-versed in the specifics of fire inspection. So when he received a surprise visit from city fire inspectors during the lunch rush at his downtown location this past spring, he expected that they would nose around in the kitchen, poke at the fire extinguishers, and check out the evacuation plan at Chef Geoff’s Downtown.

But Tracy was surprised when the inspectors inquired not about the restaurant’s industrial kitchen appliances, but about the smallest source of flame to be found in his establishment: the small votive candles scattered throughout his dining room. The inspectors asked Tracy if he held a “candle permit.”

“It’s like 12:30, I’ve got 200 people, and they want to know where the candle permit is,” Tracy says. “I’m like, ‘What the hell is a candle permit?’”

The answer to that question can be found in the D.C. Fire Code: A permit from the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is required to remove paint with a torch, use a torch or open flame device in hazardous fire areas, or use open flames, including candles, in connection with assembly areas of restaurants or drinking establishments. An exception is granted to places of worship.

Tracy, who serves on the board of directors of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), says that a few months prior to his inspection, he learned at an RAMW meeting that fire inspectors were checking local restaurants for the permits. But he forgot the piece of information until after the candle probe of Chef Geoff’s Downtown. He says the inspectors weren’t “annoying” about his lack of a permit and didn’t write him up for the violation, but the encounter left him fired up nonetheless.

“You have to get inspected by the fire department to open a restaurant, you have to pass fire code—I’m all for that,” Tracy says. “I don’t want any restaurant catching on fire and taking out a bunch of people, but [our] candles are designed, when they tip over, to go out. We’re not talking about a high potential for fire here.”

Tracy not only declined to obtain the permit, which he believed to be $25, but several months later, he also brought up the issue when he lunched with At-Large D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson at his downtown restaurant.

The two men have disagreed on various issues affecting the restaurant community in the past, including “smoke-free” legislation and Mendelson’s proposal last year to require chain restaurants to provide nutritional information. But old battles were forgotten in the heat of the candle flap.

“We didn’t necessarily agree on everything,” Tracy says of his meeting with Mendelson. “But when he heard about the candles, he said, ‘Twenty-five dollars? For what?’”

Mendelson says that after the lunch, he wrote the fire department to inquire about the permit. After a round of e-mails, he learned that the fee was not $25, but $100—an increase that was announced in the Jan. 9 issue of the District of Columbia Register.

Soon after, Mendelson got to work on a bill to exempt restaurants from acquiring the permit. On Sept. 21, he introduced the Restaurant Candles Permission Act of 2004 in the hopes of repealing the regulation requiring restaurants to obtain candle permits, calling it a “burden” and an “example of over regulation” in a press release.

“I think it’s stupid,” Mendelson says of the permit. “There is no question that fires are a serious issue of public safety….We just can’t have city hall in everybody’s living room or restaurant looking at our candles. There has to be common sense here. I think a candle permit is stupid—it’s overkill.”

But where Mendelson and Tracy see unnecessary red tape, the fire department sees a potential hazard that warrants monitoring. The department views the candle permits as a way to find out who is burning candles so that it can better monitor those establishments for fire-code violations across the board. Deputy Fire Chief Kenneth Watts, fire marshal for the department, says that his agency has historically been uneasy about the use of open flame in places where alcohol is served, and he notes that candles aren’t the only sources of fire that are cause for concern.

“As far as the permit is concerned, many times we go out on public-assembly inspections late at night and find out after the fact that establishments have candles burning and other open-flame-type situations—like ‘flambé,’ whatever it is—where they set food on fire before your eyes. I’ve never seen it done. I’ve heard about it. It’s open flame,” Watts says.

But it’s hard to imagine that the small candles at Chef Geoff’s Downtown could pose as great a risk as a blazing dish of cherries jubilee. As Tracy is quick to point out, the votives used in his restaurant are safer than the average candle. They are actually “fuel cells,” small lamps filled with liquid that burns only when attached to a wick. “They’re concerned with a candle on a table, but we’re letting it rip in the kitchen all day long,” he says.

Mendelson says he hopes the candle-permit-repealing legislation will go through during this council session. But in the meantime, while Tracy complies with every regulation governing the fire-breathing appliances in his kitchen, he has yet to acquire the candle permit.

“I don’t think I have one,” he says. “I guess, technically, I’m breaking the law. The [general manager] was going to go get it. I said, ‘Forget it.’ Do we really need a candle permit?”

But when informed that the fire department has the option of imposing a $2,000 fine when establishments refuse to obtain the permit, Tracy concludes that it may be time to stop standing on principle. “I think I’ll send my [general manager] to do the legwork,” he says. CP