It's Round 3 for Jamie Leeds, owner of Hank's Oyster Bar at 1624 Q St. NW, and a handful of nearby neighbors, with the latest punch thrown Friday evening. That's when Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) investigators ordered the restaurant to remove half of the venue's outdoor seating, says Leeds. The order reduced outdoor seating from 40 seats to 20 ahead of the Capital Pride weekend, during which the celebration's parade passes within feet of Hank's.
The whole kerfuffle traces its roots back to 2005, when Leeds was trying to open Hank's, her first restaurant. At the time, she was able to get the backing of both the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and the Dupont Circle Citizens Association. Six residents, however, were able to force additional concessions from the restaurant in the form of a ''Voluntary Agreement,'' in addition to her agreement with the DCCA. That was Round 1. In Round 2, in 2010, Leeds managed to have the ABC Board vacate the agreement with those six residents so that should could expand Hank's – renovations with included expanding the restaurant's patio and doubling the outdoor seating. The larger venue debuted in August 2011.
(Photo by Todd Franson/File photo)
But that vacated voluntary agreement has come back to life, in a sense, following a challenge to the ABC Board's decision in the D.C. Court of Appeals.
In an open letter from Leeds to ''the Dupont Community,'' Leeds writes, in part, ''The few neighbors opposed to me appealed the termination of the [Voluntary Agreement] to the Court of Appeals. The Court has now reversed the ABC Board, finding that not only do we have to show no adverse impact in termination of the VA, but also that we tried to work it out with the protestants by entering into an amended VA, and that we need the VA termination because of changed circumstances.''
It's that reversal that prompted the investigators to order the removal of half the venue's outdoor seating.
The ABC Board is due to consider the dispute Wednesday afternoon, June 13.
''I expect them to overturn this decision and me continue to operate my business till we can get this whole matter figured out,'' says Leeds. ''I want a quick decision.''
To help her case, that open letter urges supporters to contact the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA), which operates under the ABC Board; Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), in whose ward Hank's operates; Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who chairs the council's Committee on Human Services, which oversees ABRA; and Mayor Vincent Gray (D), who stated at a recent town-hall event, ''I don't think a small handful of people should be given the opportunity to unreasonably hold up action on something that the preponderance of people want to move forward.''
Evans's communications director, Andrew Huff, says that as of midday today, the councilmember's office has received about 25 to 30 emails in support of Hank's. Huff also shared an email from Evans, essentially the councilmember's statement on the matter:
''My office had no objection to the expansion of Hank's, nor to the termination of their Voluntary Agreement. In the majority of these situations, I defer to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, who also had no objection.
''My experience with Hank's has been nothing but positive over the years and I believe we must all support our local businesses, especially those with a track record as good as Hank's.
''As you are likely aware, the ABC Board is having a hearing this week on the case, which I am following closely. I have also asked that they resolve this matter as soon as possible to ensure as little interruption as possible in Hank's business.''
In the original 2005 agreement, two signatories, David Mallof of the 1700 block of Q Street NW, and Alexis Rieffel, of the same block and the signatory living nearest to Hank's, were designated as spokespeople for the group.
While Mallof spoke in great detail about the dispute, he declined to offer any public statement. Reiffel, a resident of the neighborhood since 1973, did tell Metro Weekly in 2005, “You look at the commercial strip and you see that 50 percent of the storefronts are occupied by liquor-licensed establishments. How can you be a resident of the neighborhood and believe that it would be in your interests to have 60 or 70 percent of the storefronts with liquor licenses?”
Today, Reiffel adds, “I don’t know what the big deal is. The city has rules and regulations. Voluntary Agreements with restaurants are part of those rules and regulations. Enforcement is the responsibility of the city. … What I’ve been fighting for is a diverse, business-friendly neighborhood.”
Leeds, a lesbian, acclaimed chef and immediate past president of the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs association, owns a second Hank's in Alexandria, and for a time co-owned CommonWealth Gastropub in Columbia Heights. She says the experience with her Dupont Hank's is in a class of its own.
''This is the most I've ever had to deal with,'' she says of the friction she's experienced with the six signatories. But while she's said in the past that their resistance has prompted her to consider moving the restaurant out of the neighborhood, that's no longer an option.
''I've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to expand and make a really beautiful extension of the restaurant and lounge,'' she says. ''It gives 17th Street something nicer to experience for the residents. I don't want to move.''
John Riley contributed to this report.
[Editor's note: This article was updated Tuesday, June 12, 11:03 a.m., to add comment from Alexis Reiffel.]