If you like hamburgers, sandwiches and popcorn, belly up to the bar.
That's what the Virginia House of Delegates said today as it passed legislation redefining what constitutes a meal in restaurants in the Old Dominion.
Under current rules, restaurants that serve mixed drinks must follow a 50-50 sales ratio with no more than half their annual receipts coming from alcoholic beverages. Food sales must derive from substantial meals rather than snacks.
Humble hamburgers, sandwiches and popcorn do not qualify as meals -- a rule that several irritated Northern Virginia restauranteurs claims has cost them their liquor licenses.
The House voted 57 to 37 to change all that, amending "meals" to "food," which would include snacks, and increasing the limit for liquor sales (including beer and wine) to 55 percent. The Senate approved the measure shortly afterward.
The effect of the bill, which drew intense lobbying efforts from both supporters and opponents, would be to permit restaurant owners to set up more Georgetown-style bars that cater to a young crowd and do not serve full meals.
Alexanria legislators voted against the bill, saying they feared that liberalized liquor sales would worsen problems in Old Town, where residents have complained of noise, littering and rowdy behavior by patrons of some popular bars and restaurants.
"This is a significant change," said Alexandia Republican David Speck, adding that a restauranteur could charge 55 cents for a mug of beer, make a customer buy a 45-cent bag of popcorn and be in compliance with the revised liquor-food ratio.
Speck predicted the bill would be vetoed by Gov. John Dalton.
Supporters of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), argued that the new legislation would merely give restaurants a break already enjoyed by the state's hotels and motels.
Del. Martin E. Perper, (R-Fairfax), a hotel owner, said that while hotels can count large-scale banquet and convention business as meals, smaller restaurants are unfairly penalized by not being permitted to count snacks.
"Restaurants do not have these facilities," said Perper. "Some restaurants have gone out of business when hotels go up next to them."
Other legislators argued against the bill, saying it was unnecessary because a few restaurants are having trouble with the present meals-liquor ratio. "If you pass this measure you are going to allow 32 percent more alcohol to be sold, without selling more food," warned Del. Ralph L. Axselle (D-Henrico).
The bill was strongly opposed fundamentalist religious groups and the Virginia Hotel and Motel Association and eagerly backed by restaurant owners.
Fairfax Republican Del. John W. Buckley, who voted for the bill, said he received 50 telegrams yesterday from Northern Virginia restaurant owners.
One downstate supporter who did not want to be identified said that one of the most powerful Baptist ministers in his district sent him a "pretty hard letter," warning the lawmaker that he "had better start voting right on morality issues" and against liberalizing the state's liquor laws.
If signed by Gov. Dalton, the new law would take effect July 1.