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Red Onion in Danger of Losing Its Liquor License

November 23, 1991|JOHN H. LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saddled with six citations from the state alcohol regulating agency, the Red Onion restaurant and nightclub in San Diego is in danger of losing its liquor license just two years after it opened.

In addition, a number of alleged business permit violations for patron fights, nude entertainment and dancing on the club's bar have jeopardized the Red Onion's license to operate a nightclub.

An administrative court hearing on the city of San Diego's case against the establishment was held in June. The decision on whether to suspend the club's permit for 60 days is pending.

Owners of the restaurant chain, who have contested allegations by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, declined to comment on pending litigation with the city.

An investigations supervisor at the ABC said the Red Onion, in its short life in San Diego, has seen more ABC action than any other business here.

"The problem is obvious," enforcement supervisor Steve Ernst said. "They pump too much alcohol. People get a little too bold, and, until the authorities arrive, there's no one there to control them." Allegations against the club do not include serving excessive amounts of alcohol.

The ABC has filed six citations against the Mission Beach club in two years.

In January, 1989, it imposed a $1,500 fine for selling alcohol to a minor. A disorderly-house charge filed in September, 1990, is on appeal. The maximum fine for such an offense is $6,000. Penalties on four other allegations are pending.

The most recent charge, filed Nov. 14, is of doctoring records to conform to restaurant licensing restrictions, Ernst said. The allegation states that records were altered to show that food receipts were more than alcohol receipts--a ratio that, by definition, a restaurant is required to have. Given the history of allegations, Ernst said, the Red Onion would have its liquor license revoked if found guilty of the most recent charge.

Red Onion managers said the club operates like any other in the city and has its share of problems. But, they added, the Red Onion gets more than its share of attention from law enforcement.

Barry K. Lovell, a manager at the club, said authorities have targeted the club in order to send a message of compliance to other businesses.

"We don't do everything right," Lovell said. "But, out of all the places to party in the city, who is doing everything right? We have the highest profile in the city, and because of that, you have these agencies taking shots at us."

The San Diego club, one of 16 outlets of the chain that has been dispensing affordable night-life fuel since 1949, is generally packed Thursday through Saturday. Dance music blasts over a muscular sound system. The weekday cover charge is $3, and drinks range from $1 a shot to $16 for a cocktail bucket. Though licensed as a restaurant, the Red Onion aggressively markets its party milieu. Each night of the week has a promotion to draw crowds to the club at the foot of the Belmont Park roller coaster.

On Sundays, $5 buys an unlimited food buffet plus five alcoholic drinks; on Mondays, the night football game is interrupted by the Half Time Chug-a-Lug Contest; Thursdays is "All Ripped Up & No Place to Go Night," when patrons in ripped jeans enter without paying a cover fee, and a shot of alcohol costs $1.

"This is as serious as partying gets," reads a flyer advertising "All Ripped Up" night.

But the threat of closure has not deterred the flow of patrons into the San Diego branch of Southern California's dominant restaurant-club chain. And, interspersed among the revelers, it seems, are often law enforcement authorities. San Diego Police Sgt. Terry Degelder said drunken behavior in the 3100 block of Ocean Front Walk, which the Red Onion shares with three other bars, makes it a hub of police activity. Patrons coming from the Red Onion are the ones most frequently cited, he said.

Degelder, who heads a six-officer beach unit that patrols Mission Beach and surrounding areas, said a group of women patrons leaving the Red Onion last summer exposed themselves to officers. The boldness was apparently fueled by alcohol, Degelder said.

"Sober people don't do that," he said.

On another occasion, while accompanying ABC officials inside the clubs, Degelder watched a woman collapse off her bar stool after being tapped on the shoulder by an inspector.

"I've never heard of anyone getting cut off at the Red Onion," he said. "One of the problems is, they deal with a very young crowd--the just-turned-21 type--who may not be very experienced drinkers. They tend to overindulge, and, when they do, the police have problems."

Lovell said the club's promotions are in line with other businesses in San Diego. The Red Onion's theme nights and drink specials--at which law enforcement wags its finger disapprovingly--are industry standards, he said. Lovell rattled off a list of clubs in Pacific Beach, the Marina and the College area that use similar $1 shot and "you-call-it" drink promotions.

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