Credit: Illustration by Robert Ullman

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There’s something deceptive about Tune Inn on Capitol Hill. It’s not the décor, which suggests a cozy dive bar. And it’s not the menu, which promises exactly what the place offers—burgers, fries, and grilled cheese without fancy flourishes. It’s the sign. It says Tune Inn Restaurant. As of May 2006, the establishment is technically a tavern.

Is there a difference? Well, there’s a big one, actually. The distinction matters enormously to the city’s booze entrepreneurs. For years, scores of D.C.’s watering holes have been classified as “restaurants.”

And restaurants come with a slew of requirements. Forty-five percent of their sales, or $2,000 per seat per year, must come from food. They also have to keep their kitchens open until two hours before closing.

All these requirements are a hassle for owners whose places look a lot more like bars than like restaurants. And it’s only going to get worse. In 2004, D.C. Council retooled restaurants’ food-sales requirements and gave establishments two years to come into compliance. Time’s running out. According to spokesperson Jeff Coudriet, new auditors arrived at the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration headquarters on Dec. 11. On Jan. 31, they will begin tabulating food sales to see who’s meeting the requirements and who isn’t.

“The auditors will be looking for source documents,” says ABRA Director Maria Delaney. “Lots of little pieces of paper….Bank records, receipts.”

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Tune Inn and other D.C. taverns with the proper license should be unfazed by this news. Tavern licenses, which came into existence around 1986 and are harder to come by than restaurant licenses, say ABRA officials, don’t include food requirements and allow establishments to close their kitchens whenever they choose.

But the Jan. 31 deadline does pose a problem for restaurants who find the food-sales minimum almost impossible to meet. “There’s not enough demand there,” says Andrew J. Kline, a lawyer representing several of these restaurants. “There have been a number of establishments in Adams Morgan who have gone on campaigns to market food, [but] they don’t get where they need to be [with] the $2,000 per seat per year requirement.”

With enhanced regulation on the horizon, approximately 15 restaurants applied to switch to tavern licenses this year. The issue is particularly relevant along Adams Morgan’s 18th Street, where six or seven establishments have tavern-license applications pending.

In October, at the urging of the area’s advisory neighborhood commission, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board passed a moratorium on tavern licenses in Adams Morgan. Now places like Club Heaven & Hell, Asylum, and Kokopooli’s, who filed their tavern-license applications before the moratorium took effect, are finding themselves in limbo as they await a decision from the ABC Board.

In the meantime, neighborhood activists are readying their troops for battle. In his Oct. 3 neighborhood update, Adams Morgan advisory neighborhood commissioner Bryan Weaver wrote, “a majority of the ANC has been concerned that the gradual disappearance of food availability in many of those bars and restaurants is not entirely unrelated to the recent marked increase in reports of violence on 18th Street.” The commission has hired a lawyer to help it in its fight.

Some establishment owners, however, think the emphasis on food is misguided. Food isn’t a “magic bullet,” says the owner of one restaurant seeking a tavern license. “Alcohol in your system is alcohol in your system. Food in and of itself doesn’t solve the problem.” He calls neighbors’ “fear that Adams Morgan is going to be the Wild Wild West” unfounded. “They already have laws on the books for everything we do here,” he says, referring to the ABC Board’s list of existing regulations.

John Andrade, owner of Asylum Bar and Lounge, says his establishment “is on target to get close” to the $2,000-per-person food-sales requirement and would never abandon its food sales. “That would probably be one of the most unwise business moves I can make.” Instead, he says, he applied to convert to a tavern license because he doesn’t want to be fined if he falls just below the minimum. “I don’t want to be under that gun. I don’t want to be subjected to that scrutiny.”

Weaver says he’s sympathetic to the plight of some would-be taverns. “Sometimes in Adams Morgan,” he says, “you pick a place that’s in between.” He cited the Reef, which has a tavern license and a robust food operation, as an example. Weaver says he would favor “a middle path” that would allow certain establishments “a lower food percentage” to meet the requirements. “Between $2,000 a seat and nothing, it would be better to give these establishments somewhere to go.”

His group even approached Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham and the ABC Board about creating a cafe-class license that would require only $1,500 in food sales, but “the ABC Board wouldn’t let us do it because they wouldn’t let us do our own license class,” Weaver says.

Graham says a license that is somewhere between a restaurant and a tavern in terms of food sales would be worth exploring. As for the Adams Morgan establishments seeking new tavern licenses, he says, “I think those licenses that are already in the pipeline need to be considered on their merit….Just because you apply for a license doesn’t mean you get it.”

Still, he says, “one thing that’s very, very clear is that restaurant licenses are going to be held to a higher standard….We’re going to be much more serious. It used to be that a restaurant was just a nightclub. That’s not going to continue.”