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BYOB: It can spell trouble

How many times have you brought wine to a restaurant that didn't have a liquor license? Well, it's against the law.

November 12, 2003|David Shaw | Times Staff Writer

Brooke WILLIAMSON had worked her way up through the kitchens at Michael's and Boxer and she'd won considerable acclaim as the chef at Zax, and now -- at 25 -- she was a partner in her own restaurant, Amuse Cafe in Venice. Business was booming, the critics were raving, and every night the room had both the loud buzz of the hip "in" place and the reassuring warmth of the neighborhood hangout.

Then, without warning, came The Call.

It was an investigator from the state department of Alcoholic Beverage Control on the phone. Someone had complained that Williamson was allowing customers to bring in -- and drink -- their own wine and beer, even though her application for an ABC license had not yet been approved.

If she didn't stop that illegal activity immediately, the investigator said, the police could arrest her and her partner, Nick Roberts, that very day.

She stopped -- and business quickly plummeted more than 50%.

"We can't stay in business at that level," Williamson says, "but people want to drink wine with dinner, and if they can't do it here, they'll go elsewhere. The people who had a restaurant in our space before we opened [in July] let people bring in their own, and we thought we could do it, too, as long as we didn't charge corkage."

She thought wrong. And she's not the only one. I know of at least a dozen restaurateurs around town who are making a similar mistake. I'd bet there are dozens more. Most of them -- and their customers -- have no idea they're breaking the law. But it can be ridiculously difficult to get a license to serve alcoholic beverages; almost everyone, including the ABC, ignores the law ... until someone complains.

It starts with a call

The law is clear. A restaurant cannot allow anyone to consume alcoholic beverages if the owner doesn't have an ABC license, regardless of whether the alcohol is provided by the restaurant or by the customer. Section 25604 of the state Business and Professions Code, enacted in 1955, says -- in part -- that it constitutes a "public nuisance," punishable by law, to maintain any "club room" or "premises" on which "any alcoholic beverage is received or kept, or to which any alcoholic beverage is brought, for consumption on the premises by a member of the public unless the person and premises are licensed under this division."

But the ABC "basically turns a blind eye unless someone complains," says Baxter Rice, the agency's director from 1976 to 1983 and now an alcohol license consultant.

Rene Guzman, supervising investigator at the Inglewood office of the ABC, which received the complaint about Amuse Cafe, essentially confirmed that policy when I called him last week.

"We have too many license applications and not enough investigators, so we don't go looking for this kind of violation randomly," Guzman said. "Most of the time, when we call people on that violation, it's because someone called us to complain, usually anonymously."

Guzman says he receives three to five such calls a month, and restaurants are usually cited for the violation, then comply with the law.

Who calls?

Rival restaurateurs. Neighbors who don't like the noise and traffic that a restaurant brings. Neo-Prohibitionists and bluenose busybodies who think any alcohol is the devil's brew. Anyone with a grudge against the restaurateur or the chef or the landlord or ...

But why, apart from ignorance, would someone open a restaurant with no alcohol license and let people bring their own wine? Why, for that matter, would any restaurateur forgo the profits that come from selling alcohol?

Getting a license to serve alcoholic beverages can be a costly, complicated and time-consuming process. That's why. It's not just the state ABC. A restaurateur has to negotiate the labyrinthine regulations of city and county bureaucracies as well.

It's a red-tape nightmare.

I know one restaurateur who was told that he'd have to build two bathrooms for the disabled if he wanted to get the health department OK he'd need before he could be considered for an alcohol license. Unwilling to sacrifice space in his already small restaurant, he didn't bother applying.

Williamson did apply. "But you can't get it until you get a conditional-use permit from the city," she says, "and to get a conditional-use permit, we have to have one parking place for every 100 square feet of restaurant space. For us, that means 12 parking spaces. But parking is terrible in Venice. We only have five spaces. We've been talking to businesses in the neighborhood about leasing seven other spaces, but no one has been willing to lease them to us."

That's one reason several other restaurateurs who considered her location decided against it before she chose it.

Josie LeBalch, one of those restaurateurs, ultimately opened Josie Restaurant in Santa Monica instead -- but only after an alcohol license battle of her own.

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