Kevin P. Delaney is considered a dean among D.C. bartenders, having worked in some of the city's better establishments for 25 years. He's been everywhere--Sam & Harry's, Kinkead's, the Old Ebbitt Grill. Now he works at Tahoga, a place on M Street with a chic dining room and an intimate bar. A place that serves appetizers like steamed clams with cilantro and lime, and where the cheapest glass of wine goes for $7.
Friday night around 9 p.m., when the dinner crowd was at its peak, a threesome walked in: A woman who looked to be in her late thirties. A tall, strapping man--youngish, maybe 21. And a young woman with large, round glasses and bangs swept across her forehead. Delaney pegged the second woman for the 25-to-28 range. He had never seen any of them before. He smiled, murmured some niceties and took their order: a cocktail for the older woman, a ginger ale for the young man and a Heineken for the second woman, the one with the bangs. He brought the drinks, thought nothing of it.
Ten minutes later, the police showed up. Twenty minutes later, he was on his way out of the restaurant, accompanied by a half-dozen police officers and members of the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, while patrons stared and murmured and the waiters floundered to fill their drink orders.
Kevin Delaney was under arrest, charged with serving alcohol to a minor. The woman with the bangs turned out to be 19, and she was an "SE," or special employee, of the Metropolitan Police Department--basically, a college student hired to help the ABC Board with this sting. And Delaney was on his way to the lockup at Third and Florida NW, to a cell normally filled with narcotics offenders.
In the past few months, that cell has been host to quite a few transgressors of the local law prohibiting sale of alcoholic beverages to a minor. Among those stung are some of the city's finest bartenders. Just last weekend, the sting claimed D.C. Coast and Red Sage on one night, Marcel's and Tahoga--among others--on another. On Monday night, Morton's Steakhouse on Connecticut took the hit. The list is long, and includes some of the city's most distinguished restaurants.
"I just can't understand it," Delaney says now, a few days later, the summons still making him angry. "It's not common that anyone under 25 is in here. This isn't the kind of place where kids go drinking. We're really confused about why they are targeting us."
According to ABC Board spokeswoman Jacqueline Wallace, the agency and the police special task force--which work together--are not targeting Washington's upscale restaurants. They're targeting everyone. The first wave came in May, when the task force took down mom-and-pop convenience stores in Northeast, liquor stores in Southeast and both types of establishments along the 14th Street corridor in Northwest.
Restaurants have been targeted during the more recent sweep, which started July 7 and continues to this day. The sting has been highly successful: According to ABC and police records, the task force has visited 94 D.C. establishments and busted 53.
And it has made a lot of people very angry.
"Complaints?" says Lt. Sylvia Bullock, a 25-year police veteran and a member of the task force. "They're high. Very high. People are very concerned about what we are doing. But we're not making the law; we're enforcing the law. And yes, they are [mad], because we are doing a very good job."
When the task force hit the mom-and-pop stores, many of them Korean-owned markets, the police drew complaints from business owners who claimed that Asians were targets, according to Bullock. When they hit some of the liquor stores, other minority groups complained that they were being targeted. But it wasn't until they moved on to what are referred to as "white-napkin" restaurants that this truly became a cause celebre.
"This is a crazed little tactic that they're doing," says D.C. Council member Harold Brazil from his cell phone. "The sheer number they're getting, and the real mix of different types of restaurants, to me proves that, one, you can trick anyone, and, two, this tactic is real dubious and it's not really getting at the problem of teenage and minors drinking. It's just about fooling people." Brazil got involved after Capitol Hill restaurants took a big hit the night of July 7. Pennsylvania Avenue was a virtual nest of police transport vehicles: Hunan Dynasty, ThaiRoma, the Capitol Lounge, Il Radicchio all went down. A week later, they were back, nailing Tunnicliff's, the Patio, Trattoria Alberto and others. In between, they hit the U Street Corridor, and a week later they went after the 18th Street lineup.
Brazil, who lives on Capitol Hill, knows these people and was livid, particularly over the fact that the offending staff members were taken to jail and held for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours. That, Bullock says, was standard procedure for this type of violation: She and her colleagues can't do anything about it. So Brazil introduced a bill last week that would change the process--he wants police to issue a summons, like a traffic ticket, and not actually arrest anyone.
Brazil is not the only one who finds the method at least as enraging as the punishment. For the record, restaurants that are first-time offenders are given a $1,500 fine by ABC, and their licenses are suspended for five days, though that suspension can be stayed if all members of the serving staff and management attend "responsible hospitality training" (call it the bartender's version of traffic school) within three months. The actual seller of the liquor can be fined up to $1,000 and forced to serve 180 days in jail, though most first-time offenders get off with little more than a warning and a small fine.
It's the way the task force is going about its job that has gotten people all bent out of shape. Josh Levin, who owns Red River Grill and Politiki (two restaurants that have escaped unscathed) is a member of the board of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. And his group is extremely upset.
"The majority of these places have no history of committing crimes, no intention of committing crimes, and had these officers not gone in and created these crimes, crimes would not have been committed," he says. "Don't get me wrong, everybody who has a liquor license has a responsibility to obey the law, and all regulations, and all standards of good business practice. But the city has an obligation to treat honest business owners fairly."
Then there is Doug Munroe, a bartender at Felix, on 18th Street NW. Munroe has been in the game for 12 years. He was behind the bar on July 22, when the sting hit his place. He faltered, let a girl who turned out to be underage and in the employ of the police department have a Corona. The cops came, the ABC officials came, he gave up his belt and his shoelaces, and he was hauled off to Third and Florida for a few hours in lockup.
There, he met some 19-year-old dealers who told him they were selling drugs to get money for their children. He listened as they lectured a sap who'd been picked up at Union Station carting a kilo of coke from Miami to Newark that he was certain to get time. Munroe felt out of place. He felt lucky. He felt like an idiot.
"The bottom line is, after all the years I've been doing this, I should have known better," Munroe says. "Yes, they created a little theater, made it easier for you to make a mistake. But if you're doing your job right, they can't get you. And I screwed up."