A New Restaurant on the Hill Applies for Late Hours, Hilarity Ensues

What happens when a new Capitol Hill Italian restaurant seeks permission to serve alcohol after midnight? An ABRA protest hearing is held, resulting in one of the most entertaining transcripts I’ve ever read. Those interested in Bar Charley‘s recent request for similar hours may find it illuminating on how that process will go.

Background

Romeo and Juliet, opening in the old White Tiger Indian restaurant space at 301 Massachusetts Ave. NE (a few blocks from Union Station), recently applied for a restaurant liquor license, seeking permission to serve booze the maximum hours (until 2am on weekdays, 3a on weekends), though without an entertainment endorsement. Although this spot is on a commercial strip (to be fair, residences border on 3rd Street), the space was occupied by restaurants with liquor licenses in the past (White Tiger opened in 1997 until it closed in mid-2012), and bars like 201 Lounge and Union Pub are on the next block, nearby residents were not happy. Compounding the neighbor’s fears that the place would become a nightclub was the discovery that the owner, Michael Romeo Rehman, is behind nightclubs such as Dirty Martini, Fur Lounge, Lotus Lounge, Tattoo Lounge, and Midtown. As with most new liquor license applications in DC, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 6C in this case) protested the application on the grounds of disturbance to the peace, order and quiet of the community. Unlike most protests, however, a settlement agreement was not executed, and a protest hearing was held December 11th.

December 11th Hearing

The whole transcript is worth a read if you have time and are interested in what matters in alcohol licensing issues, but thought I’d highlight a few of the more entertaining portions.

To start off, Rehman (owner of Romeo and Juliet) explains why he decided to open the restaurant (p.50):

I’m in the nightclub business. I own nightclubs and I am getting old. A night club is a young man’s game … I want to do a nice restaurant … I wanted to go to a neighborhood where there is neighbors everywhere.
…And most people know all my establishments, the outside is always very, very clean. I keep my places very, very clean, that’s one thing I’m known for.

Rehman goes on to emphasize how it was set up to be a restaurant only, not a nightclub or a bar. There is some “W{ho’s On First”-type confusion that arises when Rehman describes portable service stations to be used by the wait staff as bars (p.119-124, 134-142) that is fairly painfully entertaining and goes on for awhile.

Frank Ortiz, the general manager (with experience working at restaurants including Dirty Martini, Jaleo, Cafe Atlantico, Zaytinya, Cafe du Parc, and Mio), followed up with more specific testimony about the nature of the restaurant and explains that the restaurant would be fine with more limited hours for the outside patio (11p weekdays and midnight weekends for the 3rd Street patio closer to residents and midnight weekdays and 1a weekends for the Mass. Ave. patio) and the interior (1a weekdays and 2a weekends).

The real entertaining part of the hearing starts once the ANC calls local neighbors as witnesses (beginning around p. 245). Betsy Gardner, a nurse who lives a few doors down, quotes extensively DC’s noise ordinance and then goes into depth about the detrimental medical effects on lack of sleep (p. 248-254), and summarizes with a few fairly reasonable thoughts:

If you grant these very late hours for the serving of alcohol in this residential neighborhood with its particular architecture, lot arrangement and street parameters of the locality, you are going to be consigning its immediate residents to nights of inadequate sleep, a clear risk to their health and safety, not to mention quality of life.

The next witness, Kay Elsasser, who lives 1.5 blocks away, complains that the Architect of the Capitol wasn’t notified; she’s worried about the children and impressionable minors who frequent the nearby Senate Daycare Center and the Senate Page School and Dormitory (p. 281-284).

The star of this show is Nancy McCall, a long-time resident who lives 1.5 blocks away. She begins her testimony by quoting Shakespeare (p. 294):

If you would permit me with a little literary reference, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” A famous line from William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. And taking literary license, a nightclub is a nightclub by any other name.

She continues by pointing out Rehman’s ownership of the nightclubs listed above and explains her issues with nightclubs (p. 295-96):

Nightclubs have no place in a residential neighborhood. We are a neighborhood where most residents head off to bed about the time that the current restaurants on the 300 Block of Massachusetts Avenue close. They close at 10:30 on weeknights and 11:00 on weekends.

… We are also a neighborhood where most residents rise within several hours of the requested closing hours at 301 Massachusetts Avenue. We often get up at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning to hit the gym, walk our dogs, get ready for work or take our –get our kids ready for school. It’s an early-rising, early-to-bed neighborhood.

McCall goes on by hilariously citing Yelp(!) reviews as evidence that this place will be a loud nightclub (p. 296-298):

When do we sleep if the Romeo & Juliet restaurant is similar to the Michael Romeo Group’s other establishments? A Yelp review of the current four Michael Romeo Group establishments give a noise rating of loud or very loud.

…How safe will we feel walking in our neighborhood late at night or very early in the morning if the environment around Romeo & Juliet restaurant becomes similar to the Michael Romeo Group’s other establishment, Fur? We have been told that Romeo & Juliet will serve small plates along with alcohol. Is it a restaurant or is it a nightclub? The request before you suggests a nightclub, if one looks at on-line reviews of the Michael Romeo Group’s business model for their current establishments. I cite four that provide clear evidence that the proposed “restaurant” will not be appropriate for our neighborhood and will cause disturbance to the peace, order and quiet to our residential neighborhood when the nightclub crowd arrives at 10:00 p.m.

Citing LM of Washington, DC, November 14, 2008, one star rating of Lotus on Yelp. “My poor marks for Lotus are mostly for its role as a restaurant, but I would also go ahead and not recommend it as a club. Obnoxious music, lighting while most of the patrons are still in the middle of dinner and unpleasant service when we were waiting for our check, because Lotus was about to turn into a club and someone had bought our table for the night.”

TripAdvisor had one review of Lotus with the heading, No Longer a Restaurant, with a short brief review “It is now a liquor store. I remember it was once, at some point, but no longer.” Paul on DCSocialite.com, August 28, 2009, Tattoo.

At this point, the Romeo & Juliet’s lawyer (the top liquor license attorney in town, Andrew Kline) objects, stating that this is irrelevant and the ABRA commissioners ask who these reviewers are. McCall, perhaps with a straight face, calls these reviewers “impartial … who [have] no bearing to this hearing” (p. 300); this does not sway the commissioners, who decide to strike these reviews from the record.

Kline then cross-examines McCall, asking her about her definition of a nightclub (Kline appears to be trying to show that a restaurant/bar without an entertainment endorsement which would allow live music and a DJ can’t operate like a nightclub). According to McCall (p. 305-306):

In my eyes, a nightclub is a place where they serve primarily alcohol, music by DJs. The current ones today they are pretty hip. You’re not going there for dinner. You are going there to party and drink. And when I was younger, I went into some establishments probably that were nightclubs, because I certainly didn’t go there for dinner.

My favorite part of the transcript is next (p. 307):

KLINE: So music would be entertainment, music by a DJ most specifically, correct?
MCCALL: It depends if you are asking me about the legal definition of an entertainment, whatever that thing is that you say you haven’t applied for. Now, I find entertainment to be listening to The Sound of Music … on television.
KLINE: So you hear … The Sound of Music in lots of nightclubs in [DC]?
MCCALL: I do in my home.
KLINE: But not at nightclubs, correct?
MCCALL: I have not heard The Sound of Music in nightclubs.
KLINE: And you wouldn’t expect to hear The Sound of Music in nightclubs, would you?
MCCALL: It depends. Maybe if I went to Austria.

[I hope Tattoo Lounge decides to play The Sound of Music one day.] McCall, under questioning by the Board, shows that she mistakenly believes that all of the local restaurants don’t have permission to serve alcohol past midnight and that DC has a restaurant liquor license that limits hours to 11p on weekdays and midnight on weekends (probably a common misconception by DC residents). She later explains that she would be okay with having restricted hours for the first year and loosening afterwards.

She concludes by speaking about the real problem, young hungry Hill staffers who love outdoor drinking (p. 325-26):

…the Hill staffers will definitely then walk through the neighborhood when the weather is nice and they are out on the patio, that’s when you would get a lot more noise, because just sitting outside drinking … and munching on something appeals very much to the Hill staffers. And then they permeate through the neighborhoods very, very loud. And I mean, I would like to see a successful restaurant, but it’s a dual-edged sword for the neighborhood.

… Because that outdoor patio is fun to sit on. It is enjoyable, but it can seat a lot of people and then if you appeal to the Hill staffers with these tapas and drinks and drink specials, they are all going to come walking through the neighborhood.

The last witness, Becky Halkias, who also lives about a block or so away, mostly just complains about parking, which is not even an issue that the ANC protested about (p. 333, 349):

…I am not comfortable if I can’t find a parking place on my street.
…My concern is people coming out and walk — you know, if they are parking — I mean, if they are coming out later and they would be parking on the street by my house, it would be — if they are noisy under that or my safety, if they are taking up the parking places and I have to go further away… It is challenging even now to get. You know, when I come home at night at 7:00, I have to wait sometimes for 45 minutes to get a parking space in front of my own house.

[I presume that she wouldn’t have to wait 45 minutes if she parked on the next block instead of waiting for a space in front of her house.] She also refers to a “gang slaying” at Fur Nightclub, but her testimony is quickly cut off by Kline and the Board.

After Halkias’ testimony, both Kline and the ANC commissioner (Karen Wirt) present closing arguments; Kline points out that it’s hard to operate a nightclub without an entertainment endorsement, while Wirt emphasizes that the late hours are problematic (p. 358):

The concern of most of my constituents today is a concern about the draw of people from the outside coming into our neighborhood. Our neighborhood is a quiet neighborhood, not a bar strip. We ask ABRA to deny these late hours, because if you grant them, other restaurants on Massachusetts Avenue could do the same and you will,essentially, have turned our neighborhood into a bar strip. You will change the dynamic of the quiet peaceful residential neighborhood, which has been that way for more than 100 years. And there is no reason to change our quality of life, so that one establishment can profit. We are long-term residents,families with children who need to sleep at night, so they can go to school and to go work in the morning.

She concludes with a fun equation:

Liquor plus patrons drinking late nights equals trouble and noise which subtracts from the peace, order and quiet of the neighborhood.

The ABRA Board stated that it will issue a decision by mid-February.

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19 responses to “A New Restaurant on the Hill Applies for Late Hours, Hilarity Ensues

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    • Can’t believe how ludicrous people actually are. Michael Romeo is a sharp business man, obviously he knows putting a club in that location wouldn’t make sense or money. It’s not fair that every other restaurant on the block gets to serve liquor later. These old farts are trying to play judge, jury and executioner all at once when they really should get back to their Canasta and Mahjong games.

      • Hey, Anonymous…

        Check out Romeo Rehman’s twitters and tell me if they inspire confidence that he will do the right thing by the neighbors if he is given no limits on his hours of operation. If you lived near the establishment, I would find it casual in the extreme if you didn’t ask the city to set reasonable parameters for hours of operation in a residential neighborhood with row house acoustics. And that would be for any new tenant, but seems particularly important for someone with MRR’s track record of failure to abide by laws of tax and rent payment/noise/building permits, etc.

        And for a big dose of “hilarity,” you might have cited some of his statements in the transcript and not only those you found so amusing from the neighbors of the property.

    • It is not enough just to laugh at people like Commissioner Wirt They have to be stripped of power. Vote vote vote. They can do a lot of damage in their two year terms. consider organizing a recall, SOMEBODY!

  2. If this guy wanted to open another club, wouldn’t he just open one and not try to pass it off as a restaurant? Why is it so hard for people to believe that someone who owns clubs can’t also own a restaurant? I understand the concerns about noise but it sounds like they presented a reasonable compromise by having limited hours on the outside patios. The owners are being conscious of the residents AND you get a new restaurant in your neighborhood. On a side note, do you think the DJs in Austrian nightclubs play the original version of The Sound of Music or a club remix?

  3. “It’s not fair that every other restaurant on the block gets to serve liquor later. These old farts are trying to play judge, jury and executioner all at once when they really should get back to their Canasta and Mahjong games”

    You sound open minded and reasonable – yes, you can assume there’s as much sarcasm as there is in this article.

    What do you consider “fair”? Do you know what goes in to opening a business? It’s called a “business plan”. A “business plan” requires market research and analysis of what you are purchasing and anticipated sales. This businessman knowingly bought the liquor license having certain hours. I hope he was not so ignorant that he did not factor these hours in to his “business plan”. My thought, is that he fully understood the terms of the liquor license prior to the sale but figured he’d employ Mr. Kline to plow over the neighborhood and extend the hours. This alone makes Mr. Romeo money and he could easily turn his less expensive liquor license in to one with more value and turn his ‘restaurant’ in to a night club – which is what he knows best.

    This is called an “inference” – do you know what that is? Because it doesn’t seem like you know what “fair” is.

    “Fair” would be operating the liquor license which you bought, not trying to change the rules of the game.

    Please, refrain from making gross generalizations about people. When people buy in to neighborhoods they buy based on the existing conditions. These individuals, young or old, have right and responsibility to make sure DC is not going rogue. These individuals are the people that keep neighborhoods, neighborhoods.

    • “young DC resident” – you make good points about the problem with making gross generalizations, but I must clarify one of your bigger points: I believe that this is a brand new application for a liquor license, which is unlike the situation with Bar Charley where that establishment bought an existing liquor license with restricted hours. He is not extending any hours, just seeking a restaurant liquor license with a certain hours (which appears to be longer than the previous tenant with a different liquor license).

      • Good comment. I did not pick up on that reading the transcripts. That is a different issue – applying for a new license as opposed to asking for a substantial change to a purchased license.

    • “refrain from making gross generalizations about people” Practice what you preach, dude.Any sentence that starts “when people…” is a generalization, you moron.

  4. Andrew Kline is not the top liquor license lawyer in town. He’s probably in the top 5, but not #1. Google his name and you’ll find some reasons why he doesn’t hold the top spot. As a licensed attorney in good standing with the bar, I’m guessing you’ll find it interesting.

    • Thanks for your comment. I guess I meant “most prolific” rather than “top.” I’ve seen his name in nearly every single hearing/status transcript I’ve read; didn’t intend to mean that he was the best as I have no basis to conclude such.

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  8. May I simply just say what a comfort to uncover somebody that really knows what they’re talking about on the internet.
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  9. Pingback: Fire on the Mountain and a dubious Denver liquor license | Colorado Media·

  10. I’m more bothered by my downstairs neighbor who watches TV at ridiculous volume levels and the police who speed through at random hours of the morning catching baddies than the existing establishments. That said, I live around the corner. I can hear the Union Pub crowd when I do my laundry in the shared laundry space, but other than that the noise has never bothered me. We live in an urban environment. The folks living closest to existing restaurants have adapted over time–perhaps, reluctantly so. If the new place follows the hours the other restaurants keep, it should be no problem. As for parking, if you live and work in the city I think it’s a luxury to own a car so that’s just a risk you accept when you own one. My only complaint is that it’s another Italian restaurant (we already have Toscana Cafe, Bistro Italiano, Acqua Al 2, and a handful of pizzerias). Why not have a restaurant which specializes in up-scale Chinese, Thai, or Korean cuisine–you know, something better than the typical take-out locations which feature “asian fusion”?

  11. Pingback: The Hill is Home | Romeo and Juliet: Opening Thursday·

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