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Does D.C. law allow the issuance of sidewalk-café licenses to taverns, liquor-serving establishments that are not required to serve food? That question became a contentious issue in a discussion of a possible sidewalk café at J.R.’s, a gay bar at 17th and Church Streets NW. Opponents of the license contended before the city’s Public Space Committee, which grants sidewalk-use permits, that the law does not cover taverns, a relatively new creature under D.C. liquor laws. Advocates of the proposed sidewalk café, which included a four-member majority of the seven-member Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), dismissed such arguments.

When the decision was announced, it was the café’s supporters who were visibly stunned. According to a Dec. 21 opinion by Deputy Corporation Counsel Jo Anne Robinson, “a public space permit for an unenclosed sidewalk café can be issued only for use of the public space adjacent to a restaurant.” The opinion held that the law refers only to restaurants and makes no reference to taverns or bars.

“We’ve consistently maintained that restaurants and cafés were the only businesses covered by this law,” says Marilyn Groves, president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA).

“The Public Space Committee, in my opinion, relied on an erroneous decision by the Corporation Counsel,” says ANC Chairman Henry Fernandez, a supporter of the proposed café. “All the other information presented to the Public Space Committee indicated that [J.R.’s] was operated in a neighborly manner.”

DCCA opposed J.R.’s sidewalk-café application because the establishment is not a restaurant, and because of the bar’s reputation for excessive noise and its proximity to residential buildings and a nearby playground. Some J.R.’s proponents charged that challengers of a public-space license for the bar are anti-gay.

The decision apparently affects other taverns in the city, some of which already have sidewalk-café licenses. “This opinion wasn’t written with J.R.’s in mind,” notes Groves. “I presume it is across the board.”

DCCA’s research indicates, however, that many taverns with public-space licenses are listed as restaurants in the files of the Public Space Commission, either because they used to have restaurant licenses and haven’t updated their status, or because they linked their sidewalk-café licenses to adjacent restaurants under the same ownership.

J.R.’s is expected to appeal the decision. The appeal route would lead to the city’s Board of Appeals and Review, which presumably is also bound by the corporation counsel’s opinion, and then to the D.C. Court of Appeals. The D.C. Council could also rewrite the law to include taverns, a change that would be controversial unless the revised law restricted tavern public-space licenses only to nonresidential neighborhoods.CP