Credit: Illustration by Max Kornell

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Just outside the Rock and Roll Hotel around 11 p.m. on Jan. 20, a group of friends pulled a drunk young woman away from the crowd outside the club and hoisted her onto the hood of a car. You could call it an example of public drunkenness, but it’s not the kind that the local advisory neighborhood commission is crusading against.

“Right now, we’re not getting a lot of calls about drunkenness from the bars and clubs,” says Mary Beatty, chair of the Alcohol Beverage Licensing Committee in the ANC representing Northeast Capitol Hill.

Instead, the commission is appealing to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board for a moratorium on single sales of alcohol, inspired by a successful effort to do the same in Mount Pleasant.

Oh, yes, single sales—those individual containers of beer and liquor that are the bane of rapidly revitalizing neighborhoods. In 2001, advisory neighborhood commissioner Laurie Collins went toe-to-toe with several businesses in Mount Pleasant to rid the area of single sales. She says calls for service to the police department have decreased in the three blocks covered by the moratorium from approximately 1,500 in 2000, the year before it went into effect, to less than 650 last year.

Now, the local ANC wants to do the same thing for H Street NE. If approved, the H Street moratorium would prevent single sales of beer and malt liquor, including 40s, by businesses with Class A or B liquor licenses—liquor stores and grocery/convenience stores. The moratorium would extend from 700 H Street NE to 1406 H Street NE, Beatty says, and would include seven businesses, although only six of them are active. The effort has Mayor Adrian Fenty’s support: On Jan. 16, he sent a letter to the alcohol board backing the request. The comment period on the proposed moratorium ends Jan. 26. The board will make its decision sometime thereafter.

The goal of the proposed moratorium, Beatty says, is to reduce “quality of life” crimes like littering, loitering, and public urination along H Street, particularly as the District Department of Transportation prepares to pump $27 million into the H Street/Benning Road NE corridor as part of its Great Streets initiative.

It would also promote H Street nightlife, Beatty says, which has been spurred by entrepreneurs who have opened up a handful of watering holes along the corridor. “We really think these two things work hand and hand,” says Beatty. “The sale of singles contributes to public drinking and really acts as a deterrent to those who might want to shop, go to the restaurants, or to one of the bars along the corridor.”

Among the movement’s supporters is Joe Englert, who owns (or co-owns) H Street nightspots Showbar Presents the Palace of Wonders, the Red & the Black, the Rock and Roll Hotel, and Argonaut Tavern. In the next four months, he says, he plans to open two more establishments on H Street: Dr. Granville Moore’s, a Belgian beer house, and the H Street Country Club, which will feature indoor miniature golf and billiards. With all these bars to juggle, Englert says, he would rather not spend time chasing after litter and loiterers. “From a guy who has to clean up every day and pick up trash all over the street, I like it,” he says of the moratorium. After all, “H Street looks like a totally different place during the day than it does at night.”

Every day, Englert says, H Street witnesses an unofficial changing of the guard. In the afternoon, the place is packed with “dozens and dozens of guys hanging out on the corners drinking beer.” At night, he says, they’re replaced by people swarming the area’s bars. Asked whether he envisions the moratorium driving diurnal beer guzzlers into his establishments, Englert says, “No. You either drink in a bar or drink outside. I don’t think ever the twain shall meet.”

H Street liquor- and grocery-store owners, however, oppose the moratorium, citing negative impacts on their establishments—and on businesses hoping to locate in the area. “[The moratorium] sends the wrong message to future merchants when a neighborhood tries to micromanage the businesses,” says Paul Pascal, an attorney who represents five H Street establishments opposing the ANC’s effort.
Pascal rejects the notion that a moratorium on single sales would reduce crime. Calling the moratorium a “draconian” response, Pascal says the neighborhood could successfully regulate single sales by brokering voluntary agreements through the “normal renewal process.”
But Beatty says the ANC spent more than two years trying to negotiate voluntary agreements with the H Street business owners, who worried about being placed at a competitive disadvantage if they stopped selling singles. “We’re not in a battle with store owners,” Beatty says. “It’s the sale of the single we’re focused on,” and the neighborhood’s “very diverse group of residents.”

So what about the customers? Patrons at Argonaut Jan. 20 said they sympathize with the drinkers who would be disenfranchised by the single sales moratorium. Darryl Bennett, a Northwest resident, says, “Sometimes all you can afford is one beer.” Added friend Corri Taylor, “Sometimes that’s all you want.”

At the Red & the Black, patron Simon van Steÿn said, “I don’t like to see the footprint of gentrification making a dent on how people have lived here for so long.” Van Steÿn, who was drinking a whiskey (“I bought it here. I didn’t bring it in.”) says he could envision himself being a victim of the proposed moratorium. “The worst thing is that it could affect me one night if the crowd at the Rock and Roll Hotel was too big and the price was too exorbitant and I wanted a drink. I’d be cursing the city.”

Can This ‘Do Get Done?

At the Red & the Black, it’s not just about feeling good, it’s about looking good, too. To that end, on Feb. 6, the club plans to inaugurate “Fat Tuesdays Phat Haircut and a Shot”—a trim and a dose of liquor for $12.

Bill Spieler, the club’s co-owner, says the idea comes direct from the Big Easy, where the H Street bar gets its inspiration. “Since we’re themed after New Orleans, there’s a bar [there] called R Bar where they do the exact same thing every Monday night,” Spieler says.

Only problem is, here in the District, the haircut-shot combo may not be legal. Ronnie Taylor, supervisory sanitarian for the Food Safety and Hygiene Inspection Services Division of the Department of Health, says, “No food establishment is authorized to co-mingle with any other nonfood establishment”—which means a tavern offering food can’t double as a hair salon.

The Red & the Black doesn’t have a formal kitchen on its premises, but it does serve food. Jambalaya and other items on the New Orleansn­­themed menu are prepared at Capitol Lounge on Pennsylvania Avenue and driven over “once or twice a week,” Spieler says.

According to Taylor, it doesn’t matter where the food is prepared but where it’s served and eaten. “A food establishment is a food establishment,” Taylor says. “You can’t have a nail salon, you can’t have an auto-repair establishment.…You can’t have a food establishment/barbershop.…That’s outlined in the food code.”

That shouldn’t be too disappointing for the bar’s customers. The patrons crowding the bar at the Red & the Black Jan. 20 seemed skeptical about the whole haircut idea. Adam Perez, a Shaw resident, says he wasn’t willing to “take a chance” on a barroom haircut. Lauren Franzel, who lives close to the bar, said she was concerned about hygiene. “I mean, the idea is OK, I guess,” she says. “But I don’t know that I’d eat in the same place that I get my hair cut.…Isn’t that against city codes?”

Asked whether the Red & the Black had any contingencies in mind in case the DOH comes knocking, co-owner Englert says he would like to try moving the haircuts outside on warm days. “I’d like to do it because it’s a fun promotion, but I’ll obey what they tell me to do.”

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