Casta’s Rum Bar Resolves Unusual Liquor License Dispute With Earlier Closing Time and Fewer DJ Nights

Photo of patio by author from January 2022

West End restaurant/bar/hot spot Casta’s Rum Bar recently resolved the protest of the renewal of its ABRA liquor license, reaching an agreement with protestants (neighboring condo and apartment buildings’ owners/management).

Under the terms of the agreement, the bar must close indoors by 12:30a each night (except during the extended holiday hours that exist about 10% of the days each year). Prior to this agreement, the bar did not have restricted indoor hours (the same 11p/midnight patio closure time that did exist continues), and the bar advertised 2a closures Thurs nights, and 3a closures Fri/Sat nights, so this agreement effectively lops off at least 6.5 hours of business each week. Another significant change is that the bar no longer is permitted to have entertainment (including live DJs which were popular many weekends previously), even indoors, except on the extended holiday hours days. (I would be interested to find out if protestants realize how many days a year have extended hours and that the agreement was written in a way that the bar could probably have DJs indoors and outdoors and be open til 4a indoors and outdoors on those days.) The ABC Board approved this agreement on January 11, 2023.

Many, if not the majority, of protests of liquor licenses in DC result in a settlement agreement prior to the ABC Board. However, this situation is unusual for a number of reasons:

  1. The parties did not agree to resolve protest in a settlement agreement. Instead the parties agreed to a “Joint Stipulation” that the Board attached to their order, which means the clauses of the agreement are adopted as “conditions” on the license and violations are enforced as a failure to follow a Board Order – which is a primary tier violation – rather than a settlement agreement violation (which is a secondary). Primary tier violations on paper result in 4X the fine and repeated violations can lead to suspensions and revocations quicker. Bars and restaurants always avoid to charged with primary violations vs. secondary (akin to the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor).
  2. The liquor license is owned 50/50 by two entities. One entity appears to be controlled by VERSUS Equity – founded by Vinoda Basanyake (profiled in Washingtonian by Jessica Sidman), which operates the establishment. The other entity is the landlord, the hotel the bar is located within – the Georgetown West End Inn. This is apparently fairly common in hotel restaurants.
  3. Ok, so what? Who cares about corporate structure? Well, Georgetown West End Inn – which again, to reiterate owns half the liquor license – asked ABRA to revoke its own license.

To provide some more context, in the last year, Casta’s has been fined at least $6,250 by ABRA stemming from violations apparently on Sept 11, 2021:

  • $250 fine for operating without a dance floor without approval
  • $3,000 fine for exceeding its 99 person capacity (ABRA investigators and Georgetown West End Inn claimed there was 250 people though it was disputed and Casta’s only conceded they were over capacity)
  • $2,000 fine for Casta’s security employee (or someone contracted out by Casta’s) assaulting patrons.
  • $1,000 fine for allowing Casta’s to be used for unlawful purpose (possibly same event as previous bullet point)

The dispute between the two halves of the liquor license came very evident in a March 23, 2022 Show Cause hearing that resulted in the dance floor/excess capacity fines (see transcript here). The hotel’s lawyer appeared to present testimony because they asked the ABC Board to revoke Casta’s liquor license (DC asked for a fine). The lawyer refers to the bar as a “menace to both the hotel and to the surrounding neighborhood”, saying “my client no longer wants to be associated with this particular business and neither does the neighborhood.” They point out the bar has been cited 7 times.

Casta’s lawyer said the hotel was trying to “use this forum … to resolve a landlord tenant matter” in another litigation. The ABC Board agreed and said testimony the hotel wanted to present was more appropriate in a protest hearing.

When ABC Board issued its decision on May 4th, it stated pointedly:

The Board further advises the Respondent that this forum is not appropriate place to resolve internal ownership issues facing the license holder. The Board strongly urges the owners of [Casta’s] to seek mediation, arbitration, or another appropriate forum, such as the courts, to resolve any ongoing issues related to the management of the business. The Board further encourages all persons with complaints against [Casta’s] for failing to operate in accordance with the District’s alcohol laws to submit those complaints to ABRA’s Enforcement Division for review.

Footnote: During the hearing, one of the co-licensees suggested revoking the license. The Board reminds [Casta’s] that one of the consequences of revocation is that all owners will be barred from holding a license for five years and risk being deemed unfit for licensure in the future.

As of mid-December 2022, the hotel still seemed at odds with Casta’s during the protest hearing (which was really a settlement/status hearing). The lawyer for the hotel initially argued (and sent a registered letter to that effect) that the hotel never authorized Casta’s lawyer to apply for a liquor license renewal. But, hilariously, the ABC Board Chairman explained to the lawyer that the hotel in fact signed a renewal application on March 23, 2022. The lawyer had to withdraw his letter accusing Casta’s lawyer of filing this without authorization because his client forgot that he had signed the renewal application.

The chair further went on: “I’m sick and tired of trying to pick sides in this matter…You two need to go to court and solve your problems. And do not bring it to the attention of this ABC Board, because we cannot solve this problem.”

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