We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
On Aug. 19, two men walked into Bardia’s New Orleans Cafe on 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan and took seats at separate tables in the back corner of the restaurant. It was around 5:30 p.m., well before the dinner rush, yet when the men arrived, there were some other customers already seated—a couple by the window, and a group of three at a center table.
The only waitress on duty was busy servicing the existing customers when, according to owner Bardia Ferdowski, one of the new arrivals—the second of the two men who had recently walked in—began snapping his fingers in an attempt to get the waitress’ attention. The waitress ignored the snapping man, says Ferdowski, “because the other guy came first, so she thought she had to serve him first.”
When the waitress handed the first man a menu, he told her he was waiting for somebody. The waitress, who asked not to be identified, later told Ferdowski that the snapping man was making her nervous and confused—her English is poor, the restaurant was short-staffed, and he was aggressive. After delivering other food orders, she finally asked the impatient guy what he wanted. He said he wanted a Heineken. Ferdowski explains that, as soon as the waitress brought the beer, the man who said he was waiting for someone took out a walkie-talkie. In a matter of minutes, the waitress was crying, in handcuffs, and on her way to jail.
Similar scenarios have been transpiring throughout D.C. all summer. Two, maybe three, people enter a restaurant. At least one of the people is a cop or a member of the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) board’s task force, and one team member is under 21. Teams have hit nearly every restaurant-destination neighborhood in the city—U Street, Adams Morgan, Georgetown. On the weekend of Sept. 10, a clutch of restaurants, including Trio and Mercury Grill, got nailed during a 17th Street sweep, resulting in fines in excess of $1,500 for the restaurant owners and additional fines and penalties to be paid by the employees—once they get out of the clink. Since July, the ABC/MPD task force has visited more than 130 restaurants, yielding more than 50 arrests for serving alcohol to minors, leaving many restaurateurs wondering why they’re being picked on.
“Morton’s of Chicago and Hunan Chinatown”—both of which have been busted—”are not places where underage drinkers hang out,” gripes Eric Peterson, the president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. “The fact that the police department is successful in carrying out a sting doesn’t say to our membership that we’ve got an underage drinking problem. What it says is that the police department and ABC are very effective at sting operations. The majority of these restaurants have never had problems with underage drinking in the past. They’re not places where underage drinking occurs, except in a situation where a sting’s been staged.”
ABC Board Chair Rodric Woodson characterizes his group’s efforts as compliance checks, not “stings,” and he debunks the notion that restaurateurs are being singled out. He explains that his group has been checking license holders, from liquor stores to nightclubs, for more than a year. There are 1,500 ABC-licensed businesses in the District, and the investigators plan to visit them all. The checks only became a public issue “when the compliance effort began embracing the restaurant classes,” Woodson says. “Everyone is subject to this compliance effort, and it doesn’t matter the class of restaurant. You can be a small restaurant establishment…The fact that you are a tonier restaurant establishment in no way allows you to be exempt from the requirement of enforcing the underage drinking prohibition.”
Few restaurateurs argue that they should be allowed to shirk the responsibilities inherent in doing business with a liquor license. George Mallios, the recently busted owner of Trio, doesn’t see any reason to cry foul. “There’s no excuse” for breaking the law, he says. “I’ll pay my fine and move on.”
The beefs with the compliance checks have to do with the whys and hows. Bardia’s, for instance, is hardly a den of underage drinking; the restaurant closes at 9:30 p.m., and Ferdowski says that alcohol accounts for only 1 percent of his revenue. Gesturing toward his minuscule bar, Ferdowski explains, “Some of the bottles back there haven’t been opened in five years.”
What’s worse, say many restaurant owners, is that the compliance teams seem hellbent on tricking otherwise responsible bartenders and waiters into making mistakes. Some even use the word “entrapment.”
The way Felix general manager Theodore Sampel explains it, his restaurant fell victim to a fairly elaborate role-play when it got stung in midsummer. He says that the task force team arrived just as Felix was opening, around 6 p.m. There were three people in the group—an older woman, a young woman, and a man with a mustache—and they sat at the bar. Sampel figured them to be a mother, her boyfriend, and her daughter—”and you would never sit down with your mother at the bar if you weren’t of age.” At first, only the older woman ordered an alcoholic drink. The trio hung out for a while, chatting up the bartender, until finally the two nondrinkers decided they wanted Coronas. They were both underage employees of the task force; the older woman was the arresting officer. As the Post reported last August, the bartender spent the remainder of the evening mingling with alleged drug traffickers in jail.
“One of the keys associated with underage drinking compliance is to know when a game is being played,” Woodson explains. “The initial effort to make a purchase may not come simply by walking in the door; it may come at a later time. A dinner may have been ordered. Halfway through or after dinner, the person who had the dinner then would order something after the meal. It doesn’t really matter when it is. What’s important is that the establishment and their employees actually check.”
I eat out an average of five times a week, and I almost never order food without some beer or wine to wash it back. I also tend to get carded, and given that I’ve been both a waiter and a doorman before, I make a point to be gracious about it. But there’s no denying that there’s something inhospitable in the implicit suggestion that I would bother to invest $50 in a meal just to get my hands on some wine—and therein lies the rub: The compliance effort has been widely successful in that it’s resulted in restaurant staffers carding, as Peterson puts it, “everyone from Strom Thurmond to the youngest infant.” But the question remains whether restaurants contribute vastly to the underage drinking problem in D.C. Woodson contends that ABC and the local police are simply enforcing a law; Peterson believes that they’re manufacturing a problem to solve.
“With all due respect,” says Ferdowski, referring to the people who took his employee to jail, “I’m not a person who’s trying to do anything improper.” His restaurant only has 24 seats in it, and he doesn’t have the $1,500 to pay for a fine. “I just don’t see the justice.”
Lost Dog Cafe doesn’t have a liquor problem. Its bar offers one of the bigger beer selections in the area, but the strictly imposed three-drink limit ensures that patrons leave only a touch less lucid than they arrived. One reader calls the Dog “the kind of place you wish was in every neighborhood” and goes on to praise the pizza and sandwiches. Indeed, the cafe’s celebrated pizza crust has the look of a winner—puffy and a blistered at the edge and wafer-thin at the middle—and the sandwiches are thick and imaginative. Unfortunately, on a recent visit, our spinach pizza is noodle-limp, our fries are soggy and cold, and our turkey reuben comes with the cheese only half-melted. Judging from the number of people around us and the meals that they’re eating—Over there! In the booth! I heard his pizza crunch!—the Dog serves some good food. We wish only that we could get some of it.
Lost Dog Cafe, 5876 Washington Blvd., Arlington, (703) 237-1552