On October 18, 2012, the webzine/party promoter Brightest Young Things (BYT) staged one of its typically eccentric, hipster events. Inspired by Halloween, the “Zombie H Street Takeover” invited attendees to pay around ten bucks to dress up in zombie costumes and enjoy food and drink deals from 11 different H Street establishments. Many drink deals included sponsor Bulleit bourbon (“A Shot of Bulleit (to the brain)” was a common deal). Sounds like a win-win for everyone, right? H Street bars could benefit from a good crowd on a Thursday evening and attendees took advantage of solid drink and food deals while getting to pay homage to the undead. Unfortunately, for the participating bars, the Zombie Takeover was essentially illegal, resulting in fines for the bars of more than $5,000. Say what? While planning the first Barred in DC Bus Bar Tour last summer, I learned a surprising fact from one bar who declined to host the tour: bar crawls are basically outlawed on H Street (and I discovered quickly, also in Adams Morgan).
In this story, I explore why your favorite H Street or Adams Morgan neighborhood bar will never be a part of a bar crawl. I’ll start by diving into the “settlement” or “voluntary” agreement that most bars in DC end up entering into just to do business, which, in some cases, restrict bars from participating in bar crawls. Then, I’ll explain why neighbors often restrict these bar crawls. Finally, I’ll dive into why one bar, Little Miss Whiskey’s Golden Dollar, fought back, challenged ABRA, and lost.
How are bar crawls outlawed?
Applicant agrees not to promote or participate in bar or pub “crawls” or any other event of this nature.
Nearly every single bar on H Street east of 7th Street NE has agreed to this restriction, which is contained in the standard Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6A settlement agreement, and dates to as early as 2004. Many bars in Adams Morgan have agreed to similar language in their agreements with the neighborhood. Why would a bar willingly agree to such a restriction? To simplify things a bit, in DC, if you are a bar or a restaurant and you want to serve booze, you need to obtain a liquor license from the Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA). Before granting a license, groups of neighbors and/or the local ANC (which serves as an elected neighborhood council) have the chance to protest the granting of the license (usually because it would impact the “peace, order, and quiet of the neighborhood”). If protested, ABRA will hold a hearing, giving “great weight” to any opinion made by the local ANC, and decide whether to grant or deny the license. To avoid the protest & hearing, however, bars and restaurants often agree to a settlement agreement (until recently they were given the misnomer “voluntary agreement”) where the bar agrees, in exchange for the neighbors or ANC dropping or not filing a protest, to a host of restrictions (e.g. hours for the patio, signage, when trash can be taken out) that essentially become part of the terms and conditions of the license and as a result–any violation can lead to consequences (e.g. fines) enforced by ABRA.
So, to avoid delays and the possibility of being without a liquor license, bars in ANC 6A, which includes nearly every H Street bar east of 7th Street NE, many Adams Morgan bars, and a few others in DC have agreed to not promote or participate in bar crawls.
What is the legal definition of a pub crawl?
Now that we’ve discussed settlement agreements and some of the restrictions contained in them, you may have more questions, like how is a bar/pub crawl defined? Or how does ABRA know that an illegal bar crawl has taken place? One could imagine some undercover investigators hanging out on the streets, being on the lookout for wristbands or joining up with any large group of folks going to bars. Luckily, those kinds of wasted resources aren’t necessary because DC’s municipal regulations have a section titled, I kid you not, “PUB CRAWLS.” This section requires that a promoter/organizer obtain ABRA approval (the form can be found here) for any crawl in which more than 200 folks are attending and defines a pub crawl as
an organized group of establishments within walking distance which offer discounted alcoholic drinks during a specified time period.
Why ban bar crawls?
So, what’s the deal with bar crawls? Luckily for me, the ANC 6A’s website provides official insights into its negative stance towards crawls. Earlier last year, a member of ANC 6A’s alcohol licensing committee explained that “in the 90s, there were some ‘really bad’ bar crawls [on H Street], which led the ANC to decide to oppose these types events across the board.” (Aside: there were bars on H Street in the 90s???). Late in 2012, the same committee rejected a request from Atlas Flats, a new apartment building in the neighborhood, that several bars be granted a one-day exception to participate in a promotional bar crawl; the committee didn’t want to open the floodgates for more exceptions. Earlier, in May 2008, this ANC unanimously rejected a request to amend the standard agreement to allow pub crawls even for charity events, finding little “enthusiasm from the committee or the audience” and that
[b]usiness owners … said they view pub/bar crawls as a way to promote cheap liquor or beer and excessive drinking. One stated he doesn’t ever want to be attached to anything called a pub crawl and doesn’t want to [be] shanghaied into reducing prices.
Jay Williams, an ANC 6A commissioner explained in a series of Tweets that “ANC 6A is exploring way to relax this restriction. [A]lso, we’ve tried our best to work with organizers to not run afoul of [definition] of pub crawl … but too many organizers just set up the event and let bars deal with fallout.”
Local residents have also, unsurprisingly, expressed their dismay with bar crawls. In one 2001 Washington Times article about the problematic Adams Morgan Bar Crawl (which stopped being held soon after the article was published), one local neighbor colorfully explained, referring to bar crawl attendees:
As far as I’m concerned, these guys are a plague on the land. They promote filth, dirty trash, loud noise and disturbance to people who don’t happen to be drunk.
In fact, a recent decision shows that this disfavor towards bar crawls has been taken into account by ABRA itself. A new bar in Adams Morgan, Libertine, recently refused to negotiate a settlement agreement with its neighbors when requesting later hours for its sidewalk patio, taking its chances with ABRA as the neighbors protested the request. In September 2013, ABRA denied this protest, granting Libertine’s request. However, in a potentially far-reaching decision, ABRA ruled, as an express condition of the bar’s liquor license, that it could not participate in bar crawls, one of the restrictions sought by the neighbors in the settlement agreement. This was included explicitly to address the neighbors’ “specific concerns regarding noise that may be considered generic to establishments in Adams Morgan and that may reasonably be anticipated to disturb the neighborhood in the same manner [which] involve pub crawls and amplified music which historically have disturbed the peace, order, and quiet in the neighborhood.”
What happened in the BYT H Street Zombie Takeover?
- Credit: BYT & Eventbrite.com
So how did a fun little zombie event by BYT turn into so many headaches for H Street bars? According to investigative reports, ABRA received an anonymous tip a week before the Zombie Takeover that BYT was promoting a bar crawl without pre-approval. After confirming that BYT had not obtained this approval, ABRA investigators went “undercover” (which sounds like the lamest undercover operation in the history of law enforcement); a pair of investigators bought tickets from BYT, and, using the coupon book and wristband given to them after that purchase, stopped by many participating bars (Dangerously Delicious, Rock and Roll Hotel, Atlas Arcade, SOVA, Church and State, Little Miss Whiskey’s, The Queen Vic, Red Palace, Smith Commons, and Sticky Rice all participated) to get (but not consume) the shot or drink they were entitled to. Another pair of investigators went to these same bars later in the night to cite these bars for violating its settlement agreement. Most of the bars cited settled with ABRA staff for fairly modest $250, $500, or $750 fines, though (likely because of its repeated previous violations) the now-defunct RedPalace (recently replaced by Vendetta) was fined a whopping $2,000. Interestingly, while The Queen Vic agreed to a settlement agreement with ANC 6A when it opened back in 2010, the agreement was never submitted to and approved by ABRA until last summer, and the bar escaped any sanctions. At the time of the publication of this story, BYT had not responded to my e-mail request for comment.
Little Miss Whiskey’s Fights Back … and …
One bar, the hipster dance spot Little Miss Whiskey’s Golden Dollar, however, did not agree to settle with ABRA staff and pay the $500 fine ABRA requested.
At the October 2013 hearing to decide this issue, the bar defended itself, explaining that it did not offer any discounted drinks so it did not technically participate in an unapproved bar crawl. The bar’s owner, Mark Thorp, explained that two of the specials-$3 Stroh’s & $4 DAB tallboy beer-weren’t even specials at all as they were offered at their normal everyday price (according to the hearing transcript, Thorp didn’t even explain this fact to BYT; I’m sure some of the attendees would have been miffed that they weren’t actually getting a discount). The other special offered, a free shot of Bulleit bourbon, did not actually cost the bar any money, as the local Diageo distributor (who makes Bulleit) provided 2 one-liter bottles of Bulleit to the bar to give out as part of the event. Thorp claimed that this meant it wasn’t technically discounted (though he conceded a normal Bulleit drink would cost $8).
Unfortunately for the bar, ABRA soundly rejected all of Little Miss Whiskey’s arguments, finding that it participated in a pub crawl in violation of its settlement agreement. ABRA stated that “[b]y agreeing to participate in the event” Little Miss Whiskey’s “permitted BYT to act as [its] agent … [so that it] is not entitled to argue that it is not responsible for the actions taken by BYT to promote the event.” The ABRA board found the bar’s testimony unpersuasive that the beers offered weren’t considered discounted drinks due to two facts: 1) the BYT advertisement listed them as “SPECIALS”; and 2) Zombie crawlers had to “pick up a coupon book and present coupons to take advantage” of all these “SPECIALS” including those at Little Miss Whiskey’s. It further found that the free shot of Bulleit bourbon, despite it being provided for free by the distributor, was a discounted drink because it was provided for free by the bartender; according to ABRA, the “source of the beverages served by [the bartender] is completely irrelevant to the determination whether discounted drinks were offered by the bar.” The Board imposed, for all that trouble of a hearing, a $500 fine, similar to what was paid by most of the other H Street bar participants.
More about DC’s Bar Crawl Restrictions
For more insight into DC’s bar crawl restrictions, in addition to the Washington Times article from 2001 discussed yesterday, articles from 2007 & 2008 in the Washington City Paper and the InTowner about the controversy surrounding the urban Idiotarod are worth the read.
Fortunately, aside from Adams Morgan and the bulk of H Street, organized bar crawls and pub tours are still permitted in most of the city. In addition, if you want to stop at a spot in those neighborhoods, in spite of these restrictions, as part of going bar to bar, you can still do so (you just might not be able get any specials from the bars for your group as part of your self bar crawl). You can also go on unconventional bar tours like a Barred in DC Bus Bar Tour; such an event technically is not a “pub crawl” under DC regulations, as the stops are not walking distance from another. Notably, at the Little Miss Whiskey’s hearing, one investigator testified that he “walked to every single bar without physical challenges” and did not have to rely upon a vehicle or public transportation.