Food - Unhappy hour

Atlanta's bars and restaurants, are illegal. What gives?

Chalk it up to a city that seems hell-bent on stymieing the flow of booze: Along with rolled-back bar hours, blue Sundays and Kafkaesque liquor license applications, it’s totally illegal for bars and restaurants to serve discounted drinks.

Happy hour? Nope, not unless the prices are the same during every other hour. Half-price bottles of wine? Technically, not allowed. A bottomless glass of wine for a set price? Not even close.

“To offer a special, you basically have to offer it every day,” attorney Hakim Hilliard says. “So it can’t be a special.”

What about a place that offers a particular type of liquor only on a certain day — say, a pizzeria that sells $2 margaritas on Tuesdays? Because margaritas aren’t sold any other day, that’s not a discount, right?

“I think that’s a stretch,” says Hilliard, who’s familiar with the law both as a former city attorney and as a lawyer who’s represented bars and restaurants charged with violations of Atlanta’s liquor code.

The specific law Hilliard cites has been on the books since at least the late ’70s. The law makes it illegal to sell “any alcoholic beverage at a price less than the price regularly charged for such alcoholic beverage during the same calendar week.” It also outlaws “using coupons or other special promotional items as an inducement to purchase alcoholic beverages.”

While common sense would tell you that the law was passed to deter binge drinking (or at least drinking more than you normally would), the law fails to draw a distinction between the danger of 5 cent beers offered near a university and the far more palatable discounts on bottles of wine at upscale dining spots.

“I don’t know the origin of it,” says attorney Alan Begner, who’s represented Atlanta bars and restaurants since 1982. “I only remember there being some discussion of requiring a two-drink minimum at nightclubs, and that not being a good idea.”

Begner points out that while bringing down the price of booze during happy hour “doesn’t make very much sense in terms of public safety,” the law might have reached too far. “It is an attempt to cover the waterfront of things you can do to get around it,” he says. “But there still are things to do to get around it.”

One example: Club promoters who offer free drinks from 4 to 5 on a certain night. “They’re really not free,” Begner says. “They’re complimentary to the customer but paid for by the promoter, which is legal.”

Of course, plenty of bars and restaurants continue to offer drink specials, independent of promoters. A cursory Google search reveals that many restaurants aren’t paying the law much heed. Across the city, establishments are discounting booze — from rainy day specials to weekly raid-the-wine-cellar deals. It’s one of the best ways to draw in recession-weary diners. And for the most part, those deals go undetected by the three Atlanta code enforcement officers responsible for the city’s 1,500 liquor license holders.

It’s rare, but a restaurant or bar does occasionally find itself in trouble for discounting drinks. Take Loca Luna, the Brazilian tapas restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue that rented a nearby billboard to advertise a weekly drink special. “It was pretty egregious, putting the big billboard up,” says Hilliard, who represents Loca Luna owner Eric Kline.

But while the billboard might have been part of the reason why Loca Luna received a citation for discounting drinks, Hilliard says other forces are at play, forces that show how inconsistent — and political — enforcement of the law can be.

After moving from its raucous digs off Juniper Street to the more residential Amsterdam Avenue area, Loca Luna became the subject of numerous noise complaints.

“When Loca Luna first went into that location, we had a lot of problems,” says Liz Coyle, who at the time was the license and permits chairwoman for the local Neighborhood Planning Unit (she’s now a District 6 City Council candidate). “Mostly, the problems got resolved — which meant I stopped getting calls and e-mails from the single-family neighbors.”

Hilliard says that, for a time, complaints about Local Luna were constant. “In fact, the fire department was coming down there so often for a while — and not finding any violations — that they asked Loca Luna what was going on.”

Finally, however, Loca Luna appeared to be guilty of something: the drink special advertised on the billboard. But Hilliard points out that even after the billboard went up, Loca Luna wasn’t cited right away.

“They got warned a couple of times,” he says — after which the restaurant discontinued the weekly deal. “In fact, they had all these signs around the inside of the business saying that they now do these specials every day of the week.” But in the bathroom, one of the old signs, promoting the once-weekly deal, was still posted. According to Hilliard, the restaurant was cited for that particular sign.

“The reality is, I think a lot of businesses probably do some version of a happy hour,” Hilliard says. “But that’s not an excuse. As I explained to my client, your defense to doing something in violation of the code can’t be that everyone else is doing it — especially if you’ve got people around you who are hoping that you fail.”

Just one infraction of the city’s liquor licensing code can be grounds for revocation of a business’s liquor license — though violators rarely lose their license for the first slip-up.

Coyle says that, noise complaints and drink specials aside, the Loca Luna incident is a symptom of a bigger issue.

“The real problem is the city’s lack of consistent enforcement,” she says. “We know that bars aren’t allowed to have drink specials. And we know that many of them advertise drink specials. I’m not suggesting that the code be changed. I’m just saying, don’t make it a joke. And don’t leave it up to establishment owners to figure out what’s going to be allowed and what’s not going to be allowed.”

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