Mayor Muriel Bowser has issued a wide ranging proposal to revamp the city’s liquor laws, including the removal of a long standing cap on tavern licenses in Georgetown.
The proposal, sent to the Council in January, covers a broad array of topics. Most notably it would allow for open containers in certain newly licensed “lifestyle centers”, which would likely include the Wharf and Washington Harbour. But for Georgetown, the biggest impact would be the removal of the tavern cap.
A tavern license and a restaurant license are similar in many ways, but different in one significant feature. That feature is the requirement to sell food. Restaurant liquor licenses in DC require an establishment to receive at least 45 percent of its revenues from the sale of food. This requirement exists to ensure that restaurants really are what they say they are. So you can’t get a restaurant license and then turn around and just run a bar. This obviously limits what a licensee can do with it, and it also adds a burden of record-keeping and compliance.
Taverns, on the other hand, have no food requirements. So you can just have a bar when you have a tavern license. This can obviously lead to a very different type of operation! And it was a proliferation back in the 1980’s of these types of bars in Georgetown, and the rowdy behavior associated with them, that led the city to adopt a cap on tavern (and nightclub) licenses in 1994. No more such licenses could be issued or transferred into Georgetown until the total for the whole neighborhood dropped below six. At the time, there were more than six, but the number steadily decreased over the years as licenses were cancelled. (This created a huge demand for those existing licenses, which could be held on to even after a bar was closed.)
Around the same time, ABRA instituted a moratorium on new restaurant licenses too. These steps, along with the growth of nightlife in other areas of the city, eventually led to the demise of the rowdy college bar scene in Georgetown. Businesses and residents alike began to be worried about the future of any sort of dining in Georgetown and agreed together to end the moratorium in 2016. But the limit of tavern licenses remained. (Although several years earlier, for the first time since the cap was instituted, the total dropped below six, and new licenses were issued.)
Given that the bad old days (or good old days, depending on your perspective) of 80s bars in Georgetown are a distant memory, there has been a growing push from the business community to ease the tavern cap as a way to attract cocktail and wine bars that might not otherwise meet the food sales requirements of the restaurant licenses. The mayor’s proposal reflects that push.
Will it trigger a return of rowdy bars? In GM’s opinion: no. For one, the ANC will still be able to obtain a raft of settlement agreement conditions to limit noise, hours, etc. But more importantly, GM doubts there is sufficient demand for those types of bars anymore, and the real estate rents might not allow for them.
Alternatively, will it spark a renaissance in interesting, small bars? Maybe. But the same problems with demand and rent will put pressure on any such project.
If you’d like to learn more, there’s a public information session next Monday afternoon.