The District's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board has ordered a 25-day liquor license suspension for the Newsroom Cafe after charges that the cafe sold alcohol without proper licensing and served it to minors.
ABC board investigator Willie Blount testified that on March 11, he and a police officer went to the building at 4934 Wisconsin Ave. NW to check on reports that alcohol was sold in the second and third floors, known as Bertha's Place and Bertha's Diner. The Newsroom Cafe occupies the building's basement, and its liquor license covers only that area.
According to his testimony, Blount found patrons drinking on the second floor, and among them were two girls ages 15 and 16. When he identified himself as an inspector, he learned that the manager certified by the ABC board to oversee liquor sales was absent, another transgression of city liquor regulations.
When questioned by board Chairwoman Marlene Johnson, Blount said that a supervisor had directed him to the cafe March 11 by showing him an advertising flier that announced that the bar would hold a drinking contest that night between students of American University and the University of Maryland.
The flier promised "T-shirts, fun and prizes," but a bar manager testified that the contest had been canceled.
Louis Nichols, who represented the cafe, pleaded no contest to the charges, but offered explanations to mitigate any punishment. Nichols said that after receiving a restaurant license that covered the other floors of the building, he wrote to the board to ask that the liquor license be likewise expanded.
"Unfortunately, my client did not read the letter carefully" and thought he was entitled to sell alcohol throughout the property, Nichols said. The restaurant's owner, Richard Strickland, also owns the neighboring Armadillo Restaurant at 4912 Wisconsin Ave. NW.
Nichols, who served on the ABC board from 1962 to 1965, said that he was unaware of liquor sales at Bertha's because he goes to bed at 9 p.m.
He also testified that when he received no response to his letters, he discussed his situation with an ABC staff assistant who, Nichols said, told him the Newsroom could sell liquor on the other floors while waiting for official board approval.
In issuing the suspension, Johnson rejected that argument, saying, "It was clear that no permission had been given by the board."
The dates of suspension will be determined after a 20-day period of review, during which both sides can submit any further findings. During the suspension, the restaurant can remain open but can sell no alcoholic beverages.
"The board believes these are extremely serious charges," Johnson said. "In this case we have two children -- I'm going to call them children -- age 15 and 16." She also cited the restaurant's Friendship Heights location, where "the sale to minors has historically been a problem."