Shortly after his appearance before the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board on Wednesday, despite having a somewhat slight build, Kamal “Commie” Jahanbein stubbornly rolls heavy metal kegs of German lager through a door that leads into his darkened establishment.
Moments ago, with the same stubbornness, he had told the board he wasn’t interested in paying a $1,000 fine to the city just because he hadn’t sold enough food items, like The Saloon’s fried clam strips or urbock chili (“for an unusual experience,” the menu says).
Jahanbein insists his business is a pub, and that pubs occupy a special place in the nightlife scene, as they’re not quite eateries and not quite bars. But he also let them know that in the near future, his U Street business will technically be a tavern.
Looking sufficiently proletariat in a plaid shirt and brown corduroys, Jahanbein takes a break from unloading the lager to suck on a cigarette and explain the situation: “I’ve put in an application to change my license,” he says. The owner hopes changing his liquor license from restaurant-class to tavern-class will get the ABC Board to leave him alone. The Saloon has been unable to meet a requirement that says spots designated as restaurants have to do at least 45 percent of their business in food sales.
The new license will cost $700 more a year to maintain. Jahanbein is willing to pay the extra cash. After he gets it, The Saloon won’t change, he promises. Jahanbein has no intention of making the green-painted hangout with its stained glass light fixtures and exposed brick anything like a dark scummy bar. “I have a perfect, peaceful ambiance,” he says. So things like the pub’s no TV rule, for instance, will stand. Hopefully, such guarantees will keep local NIMBYs from protesting the conversion.
As for the $1,000 city lawyers want him to pay, he’s not resisting because he’s a tightwad. Jahanbein says he “has a mental problem” with giving the money to the city because of a sometimes-enforced regulation (“We’ve been here for 20 years,” he says. “Where was the law 20 years ago?”). Instead of paying the fine, he says, he could use it house a family of five.
Jahanbein doesn’t like to talk about it, and he doesn’t really want City Desk to write about it, but he uses his business to fund a foundation that’s built houses and clinics around the world. (As the signed bricks around the bar, and its annual summer breaks for Jahanbein to go work, attest.)
Besides, paying up to the District when he says he hasn’t done anything wrong is against his philosophy. “If you work hard and you are good, there is no reason to take shit from anybody,” he fumes.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery