July 29, 2014
One of the quiet joys in a city of diverse neighborhoods such as Chicago is a dinner at a family-run restaurant, often with an ethnic menu, where adventurous or budget-minded patrons are free to tote in their own bottle of wine or a favorite beer.
Now, all of that is at risk because of concerns about a proposed banquet hall in the 29th Ward. To prevent the Austin banquet hall from causing problems, the ward’s alderman, Deborah Graham, wants to shut down BYOBs throughout the city. That’s too high a price to pay. In fact, it’s time to reconsider the wisdom of maintaining all the dry precincts that dot the city, a concept embedded in state law since the 1930s.
Under state law, city residents are empowered to vote their precincts dry, which prohibits the sale of liquor, and they have done so in about 12 percent of Chicago. But under current rules, restaurants can allow patrons to pack along their own libations even in a dry precinct. So can hotels, museums, salons, art galleries and bookstores that rent out space for events or host their own parties. The Museum of Science and Industry, for example, every year hosts hundreds of events, some of which include liquor, even though it is in a dry precinct.
Graham’s proposed ordinance, which has been approved in committee and is awaiting City Council action, would put a stop to that. If the Council approves it, the city would suffer.
Rather than go after BYOBs, the Council should conduct a full review of dry precincts, some of which go back 80 years ago to a different era when precincts had different boundaries. If the economic impacts and other pros and cons were clearly spelled out, some dry precincts might choose to reverse course to help small businesses prosper.
Restaurants that are BYOB — often translated as “bring your own bottle” or “bring your own booze” — generally don’t attract large, raucous crowds that some bars do and aren’t plagued with the loiterers you sometimes see outside liquor stores. In fact, they can be beneficial for neighborhoods, adding vibrancy and bringing foot traffic to business districts. By making neighborhoods livelier with more people walking the streets, they also can make them safer. No one knows exactly how many BYOB eateries would be affected by the ordinance, but urbanspoon.com lists 282 operating in the city. Jean Iverson’s book “BYOB Chicago” counts nearly 400 in the city and suburbs.
Voting precincts dry is a tool that can be useful. In 2011, residents of a West Humboldt Park neighborhood — supported by Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) — voted a precinct dry because of crime and violence near a liquor store on West Division.
But there’s a downside. Banning liquor keeps out restaurants, caterers and others that need a liquor license. Liquor bans make it hard to turn around a declining commercial area. That’s why Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), who is trying to revive a stretch of King Drive near his office, opposes the ordinance. Matt Walsh, executive director of the Beverly Area Planning Association, said that being one of the more dry areas of the city has hurt his neighborhood’s business districts. That’s no surprise. People want walkable areas with boutiques and small restaurants, and restaurants often need liquor sales to profit.
Could BYOB restaurants survive without liquor? Maybe. But Jeannette Dixon, owner of Pizzeria Deepo, 1742 W. 99th, predicted her restaurant would lose about 80 percent of its business if patrons were banned from toting in a few cocktails. Other BYOB restaurants probably would be similarly affected.
It’s odd that Graham is targeting BYOBs when, as the Chicago Tribune reported, she helped clear the path — and helped get special tax district financing — for a new liquor store in her ward that was financially backed by a felon.
We trust wiser heads will prevail when the ordinance comes to a Council vote and that afterward we can still head to a BYOB restaurant for a good meal preceded by a suitable aperitif.