The 25-foot-long oak bar at T. T. Reynolds in Fairfax City was often stacked three deep with drinkers. The cash register jingled continually -- $2.75 for a strawberry daiquiri, $2.25 for a brand scotch, $1.50 for a beer.
The scene, not to mention the 300 percent to 500 percent markups on drinks, would quicken the heart of any saloonkeeper on M Street in Georgetown or Third Avenue in New York. But owner Timmy Fenton's thirsty customers, even though they were well behaved and paid their bills, were gradually killing his business.
Because Fenton, 25, was so successful in creating a saloon-type restaurant, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission revoked his liquor license for a year -- a fate that also sould befall a growing number of similar suburban establishments.
Fenton, who now can sell only beer and wine, violated a state law that says more than 50 percent of a restaurant's proceeds must come from "meals" (and sandwich plates are not necessarily meals, the ABC says). Because Fenton's customers raised their glasses far more often than their forks, 60 percent of Reynolds' gross was from drinks and only 40 percent from food.
The law was inspired by a 1933 report to the General Assembly that said sternly: "The saloon as it existed in the preprohibition days, with its stimulated profits, political alliances and other attendant evils, must not return."
"People are going to drink," said Fenton, who is appealing the ABC's decision. "The state is fooling itself."
But the ABC isn't fooling -- and enforcement of its antisaloon laws and regulations is sending reverberations through Northern Virginia establishments trying to create the saloon-type atmosphere that brought big crowds to Reynolds.
Charlie's, a restaurant at the other end of Fairfax City, had its liquor license suspended for 45 days recently and was fined $1,000 for failing to meet the meals-drinks ratio. Bachelors II, a nearby disco, faces the same proprospect as Reynolds for failing to maintain the ratio.
A mixed-beverage license application by Fritzbe's, a sprawling new Fairfax Circle restaurant replete with saloon-type decorations, was turned down initially by the ABC on grounds that most of the place's food consisted of sandwiches, not meals.With the help of two dietitians who spoke highly of Fritzbe's "meals between bread," the owners finally prevailed and got their license.
In his wood-paneled office at ABC headquarters in Richmond, T. Rodman Layman, chairman of the threemember ABC Commission, denied that Northern Virginia is the target of any special crackdown.
But, he said, "It's clear the intent of the laws is not to go back to the saloon. We've tried to keep up with the times. Nevertheless... we're obliged to frown on things, other than decor, that suggest the saloon."
There is, in fact, an ABC regulation that prohibits the word "saloon" from appearing in any sign. It is but one of scores of regulations governing every conceivable aspect of alcohol sale and promotion.
The words "tavern" and "bar" are not proscribed, but they can be used in only some circumstances. The serving bar, which the ABC primly calls the "counter," cannot be any longer in feet than the sum of one-third the number of seats in an establishment multiplied by 2.5. Happy hours cannot be advertised.
The ABC only recently permitted Tshirts that advertise beers to be sold, but only in adult sizes.
But it is the definition, or rather lack of definition, of "meals" that is the chief concern in many Northern Virginia restaurants.
The ABC requires that restaurants, in fulfilling the food- drink ratio, do so by serving meals, not sandwiches, snacks or "light repasts."
"A sandwich is a sandwich is a sandwich," said ABC inspector Philip G. Disharoon, who opposed granting a liquor license to Fritzbe's (before he was overruled at a hearing).
The owner of Charlie's, Charlie Mendenhall, offers an "All-American Platter" (hamburger with lettuce, tomato and onion, with a serving of cole slaw) that he insists is a meal. If he can't count it as a meal, he's afraid he won't be able to meet the ABC ratio rule.
"I would like to have the opportunity to take you out of this hearing," Mendenhall told dubious ABC hearing officer A. Allen Zachary Jr. last year, "put you in that restaurant, and let you see what those platters are composed of. It might be a hamburger, but it's not a hamburger to me."
Abc/ chairman Layman said that a sandwich, under certain circumstances, can become a meal. "If it is garnished with things that would make one feel he has had a meal, that could be counted."
However, Layman, like other ABC officials, is reluctant to get into any detailed inquiry to determine precisely when a hamburger makes the transition from sandwich to meal. He prefers to cite the Virginia code and ABC regulations, whose definitions are general enough to be open to interpretation.
"People have been making fun of the ABC for years," he said. "But we'll be the laughingstock of the state if you have us make a distinction between different kinds of hamburgers."