New Orleans debates alcohol’s place in ‘standard restaurants’

Can New Orleans restaurants serve alcohol to customers who are not ordering food?

That was the question put before the City Council Thursday (Aug. 20) and with a 4-2 vote, the majority answered, "Yes."

The issue came up as part of an amendment to the city's new comprehensive zoning ordinance introduced by Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey. It sought to clarify the definition of a standard restaurant under the new zoning rules which added the use of the word "incidental."

"A standard restaurant's principal method of operation includes ordering by customers from an individual menu or menu board and the service of food and beverages by a restaurant employee at the same table or counter where the items are consumed," the new zoning ordinance states. "Standard restaurants may offer alcoholic beverages for sale as incidental to food or non-alcoholic beverage service."

Ramsey said that the use of the word "incidental," which also means accompanying, is vague and could lead to an "enforcement nightmare. We should not be in the business of creating vague standards that can lead to selective enforcement and litigation," she said.

Her amendment replaces the sentence with the word "incidental" with the following: Standard restaurants may sell and serve alcoholic beverages.

The concern -- as expressed by the Louisiana Restaurant Association, the French Quarter Business Association, and representatives of Galatoire's, Court of Two Sisters, and Arnaud's – is that the new definition implies that alcohol can only be served along with food.

Robert Watters, president of the French Quarter Business Association, said that it could prohibit people from ordering a drink at a restaurant's bar while they wait for friends to arrive or their table to be ready. It could also prevent restaurants from serving alcohol between their lunch and dinner shifts when the kitchen is typically closed.

"Operating a restaurant profitably is a challenge and it is well known that alcoholic beverage sales are an essential component to maintaining profitability," Watters said. "This represents a significant restriction in the operation of a restaurant."

Opponents of Ramsey's amendment – including Councilwoman Stacy Head, French Quarter Citizens, Vieux Carre Property Owners Residents and Associates, and the Preservation Resource Center, among others – said that the current language provides protection against restaurants closing their kitchens at 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and operating as bars for the rest of the night.

"It scares the hell out of us," said French Quarter resident Albin Guillot. "Even though 99 percent of our family restaurants in our neighborhoods are good there's always going to be the guy who's going to do his hamburgers and then he's going to turn into a disco every night in the middle of a family area."

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