Why Bar Owners Cringe At the Word 'Bar'

Death & Co. co-owner David Kaplan contacted me to express a few concerns about today’s Observer article on him and his ongoing liquor-license saga. (Read it here.)

One of his complaints involves my use of the term "bar" to describe his business.

He prefers the term "restaurant lounge," partly because it’s more accurate but, perhaps more importantly, also because saying otherwise has the potential to worsen his plight.

He is certainly not the first operator to insist on this distinction.

Over the past several years, I have covered numerous conflicts between nightlife establishments and their neighbors, both here in New York and also in Washington, D.C. And I would say that 90 percent of these squabbles involves the same rhetoric: Is the venue in question, in fact, a "bonafide restaurant," or actually just a "bar" or, worse, a "nightclub"?

In both cities, neighbors have some influence over whether an operator (be it a bar, nightclub, or restaurant) gets his liquor license. In fact, it’s one of the few areas that their input carries any sway, which might explain why they so frequently make a fuss. (Either that, or it’s just really fucking noisy.)

Neighbors tend to prefer restaurants in their communities, especially those of the peaceful, "white tablecloth" variety, and generally look down upon bars and nightclubs.

Smart operators know this. So they tend to talk a lot about their kitchens when applying to sell booze. They play up their menus and even invoke the magic words: "white tablecloth."

Now, there are some honest operators out there who have every intention of selling both food and booze, even if the bar side of the business eventually becomes more popular and profitable. I suspect that this is the case with Death & Co.

Others talk about food only as a ruse. So neighbors feel duped when the quiet restaurant they once approved of suddenly morphs into a noisy nightspot.

These dishonest operators only make it harder for the good guys. Neighbors become more skeptical and, in some cases, turn into vigilantes. I’ve seen some people camp out overnight with videocameras to gather evidence of restaurants moonlighting as nightclubs in their communities. When those places come up for renewal, watch out!

And, thus, keeping close tabs on every venue’s "method of operation" has become one of the top priorities for the State Liquor Authority, which brings us back to Death & Co.

Proprietor David Kaplan insists that he is one of the good guys. "Our food is amazing," he said of the menu, which includes surf and turf tartare and a duck and aged gouda quesadilla.

"Overall, our food sales have always been right on par with our alcohol sales," he said this past Saturday. "We’ll do 100 plates of food in a night. I’m a 50-seat restaurant, you know. Kiss my ass, if you think I’m a fucking bar!"

He went on, "I’m not a restaurant. I’m certainly not a bar. The closest thing I am is a restaurant lounge or a cocktail lounge. I am, by any definition a nightlife establishment, as is every restaurant. This business profits on people wanting to go out and socialize. It doesn’t profit on people wanting to go out and get drunk. That’s not how we make money."

Why does this distinction matter so much to Mr. Kaplan? Because it’s a central issue in his struggle to retain his liquor license.

Last spring, the State Liquor Authority sent an undercover investigator to Death & Co. to check out a tip that the venue had changed its method of operation "from restaurant to a bar/lounge," according to agency records. The SLA agent took a seat at the bar and was "immediately handed" a "food and cocktails" menu. He ordered the crab cakes.

And yet, Death & Co’s "method of operation" continues to be a problem because of several paperwork snafus.

"We made really stupid, first-time business owner mistakes that were by no means malicious," Mr. Kaplan explained.

In 2006, he and his partners submitted some of the appropriate documents detailing the changes in the operation and the corporation as the business transitioned from the former French Indian restaurant Raga to the, um, restaurant lounge you see today–they just didn’t get all of the paperwork done correctly.

So, this past December, Death & Co. shut down for a whole week and shelled out a $10,000 fine in order to settle the matter.

Yet, days later, the SLA informed Mr. Kaplan that — despite no additional charges — his liquor-license still would not be renewed because "the method of operation currently in effect and which appear on your website, are in contradiction with the method of operation and hours of operation originally filed with and approved by this agency."

How the government intends to justify such a rejection after agreeing to a settlement for the exact same charges remains to be seen.

But, until this whole mess gets resolved, Mr. Kaplan begs you, please don’t call it a bar. Why Bar Owners Cringe At the Word 'Bar'