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Though it’s become a cornerstone of the neighborhood, don’t think Kamal Jahanbein couldn’t just up and move The Saloon. He’s done it before. Back when he had “issues” in Georgetown, the pugnacious beer expert packed up his operation and left. That’s despite having hung around the neighborhood for some 18 years. Jahanbein later reopened his business on U Street, at a time when “nobody had the guts to walk through the neighborhood.” Now local regulators are giving him crap, and he’s wondering if it’s time for another change.
Along with a few other establishments that seem like bars but have restaurant-class liquor licenses (easier to get than tavern licenses), The Saloon landed in trouble last week for not selling enough food. The place did 35 percent of its business in food sales when, according to the terms of its license, it needed to do 45 percent. That meant appearing at an Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board hearing. There, a city lawyer made The Saloon an “offer in compromise” that would have gotten it off the hook. All Jahanbein had to do was give the the municipality a little succor in the form of a fine, and submit to things like continued monitoring.
Jahanbein turned it down. “They wanted to charge me $1,000,” he says. “I don’t know why anyone should compromise when they think their view is legit.” Why should he have to pay? He knows the Saloon isn’t a typical restaurant, but it’s not a bar either. The reason District regulators are on his back is that they happen not to understand the word “pub.”
Jahanbein, who is better known to his regulars as “Commie” (a pun on his first name inspired by all the rules he imposes on patrons to encourage socializing—no TV, no standing, no overly loud boisterous conversations), says that’s exactly what he’s running. Not a place to get drunk, and not a snobby eatery; just a pub. “We don’t pretend to be something we are not,” he says.
The reason his spot fell below 45 percent in food sales is because, in true pub fashion, The Saloon attracts people who want to hobnob after work. Sometimes that means having a few beers as opposed to ordering food. “I cannot force the people to eat,” he says.
Jahanbein’s not inflexible about the problem, though. He’s willing to get a tavern license if the ABC Board thinks he should. But he knows local NIMBYs often block such authorizations, for fear of what a “tavern” will mean for their neighborhood’s quality of life. That’s the scenario that could make him pull up stakes.
But for now, that’s a far off possibility; after all, it’s not like there aren’t plenty of other bars near 12th and U already. So why would anyone object? “I’ll see what kind of resistance there is,” Jahanbein says. “If they want to call us a tavern, we are a tavern. But we are a pub.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery