Vancouver's restaurant booze bylaw gets bad reviews

Post by Mike Klassen in

15 comments

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This is a special cross-post editorial to BCWineLover.com

On Friday night my wife and I had a very rare evening to ourselves. Our immediate impulse was to visit one of the many fine, and affordable eateries not far from our Eastside digs over on Main street. It would be nice, we thought, to not spend much more than $100 on a nice meal with some wine, and Main Street now gives you plenty of choice.

For those who've not had the pleasure of strolling Main Street lately, it's really shaping up to be the most vibrant part of Vancouver. What a thrill it is to be walking this street on a warm summer evening, anywhere between Kingsway and 28th Avenue. For this we can thank the vision of the City's planning and engineering departments, Translink, and the clever ideas of my former VCPC colleague Frank Ducote who was a lead planner on the Main Street upgrades.

In part because of the improvements to the public realm, several compelling new restaurants have appeared in the neighbourhood. Our choice of Friday was Latitude, an urban-styled dining spot with a respectable wine menu featuring BC and international labels. The typical mark-up for alcohol in a restaurant like this is 100%, making something you might pay $18 for at retail, is now $36. Not everyone thinks it's fair, but not everyone knows the costs of running a restaurant. If you want something a little nicer, expect to pay well over 50 bucks a bottle.

Our wine choice pairing for a delicious paella and a beet salad starter was a 2008 Orofino Gewürztraminer, which we knew would be light, crisp with apple and pear notes, and a light acidity that would complement the dishes. It was the perfect fit both for our meal, and at $34/bottle it was within our budget.

As it turns out, had we been in the mood for a red that evening or wanting to spend a little more on wine, we could be breaking Vancouver's so-called 50/50 bylaw that takes effect January 1st, which requires that patrons spend not a penny more on alcohol than they do on food.

Credit goes to the Vancouver Sun's Gordon Hamilton, who first broke this story last week. The city and Councillor Raymond Louie, who has decided to own this issue on behalf of council, formed a quick response and stated they would give the new bylaw a "second look."

Local restaurant owners are trying to band together to fight what some have accused as a well-funded and organized lobby by the liquor primary license (aka bar) owners. While it is indeed true that the city's bar and nightclub owners heavily supported the campaigns of the NPA and Vision Vancouver during past elections, there's no clear evidence to suggest it was an influence on this bylaw. Many restaurant owners are skeptical though.

Critics of this policy will suggest that it was a half-baked attempt to try and whip some offending restaurant establishments into line. It's true that a small number of restaurants were becoming de facto bars with food as an afterthought. But restaurants mix food and a social ambiance that bars cannot always offer. If you have a meal, and decide that you want to have a bit more alcohol will you be cut off by the establishment not because you're inebriated but because you're spending too much money on booze?

Bars and nightclubs for the most part are inhabited by younger patrons. Once you get a little grey on your temples, clubs and bars can lose their lustre. A restaurant with a good wine menu has always been an attractive alternative to sitting around your own kitchen with friends. When the conversation flows, often so does the drink.

So how will Vancouver city council fix this pickle that they've created? Or will people be forced to order more food that they won't eat just to make sure they can order another drink? And what if you want to order an exceptional bottle of wine, and only a light meal? These are only a few of several questions that come to mind.

This bylaw is just another bad idea and a slap in the face to Vancouverites who've suffered lousy policy on serving alcohol since the days of Gassy Jack. Tim Pawsey, aka The Hired Belly over at the Vancouver Courier has written a brilliant response to this mess created by our city council that I urge our readers to have a look at.

No wonder restaurateurs are up in arms. We all should be.

Over the last few years, Vancouver's restaurant culture has evolved--matured, even--dramatically. And thank goodness it has. Whether you choose to dine traditionally (appetizer, main course and dessert), nibble on small plates and try different wines, or just have a snack and a couple of drinks while watching a game, you have a choice and can go where you want. In fact, the more relaxed regulations have resulted in the arrival of a whole new food, wine, beer and cocktail culture, which is blossoming across the Lower Mainland.

The very notion of "liquor primary" and "food primary" licensing is an absurd and outdated system.

Just when Vancouver's restaurant scene had become something worth bragging about, we throw it under the bus. Council must go back to the drawing board and fix this before the world arrives here during the 2010 Games in mere months.

15 Comments

my understanding is that this bylaw will assist enforcement when a 'restaurant' arbitrarily and consitenty decides it is a bar first, restaurant second. The criteria and cost of licensing is significantly different but if there is no threshold of liquor, there is room for abuse.

What this will allow is upon complaint, liquor control officers can challenge the operation to meet the terms of their appropriate license. It is a move to protect the bars that play by the rules and the neighbourhoods that don't want a liquor primary in their neighbourhood but have restaurants that are restaurants in name only.

and no, I don't work for the city.

Sharon,

I don't know whether you have ever "indulged" by purchasing a nice bottle of champagne (Starting at $160) for you and your partner to celebrate a special occasion. This little indulgence alone would mean that you each must purchase $80 of food.

Even when not celebrating is is quite easy to purchase a lovely aperitif to start, maybe a glass or two (or bottle) of wine during dinner and potentially a digestif at the end. Now I have spent $100 between two people and that is assuming i was conservative on my wine selection. So I am forced to purchase $50 per person in food.

BC is known for its outstanding wine. But we all know that BC wine sells at a premium over many other lesser or mass produced wines. BC Winemakers will surely feel the impacts of restaurant patrons being forced to be mre conservative in their wine selections for fear of being forced to "double up" on their food just so that, by law, they are allowed to consume that wine.

Restaurants will likely begin removing specialty or expensive wines and spirits from their inventory because nobody will want to purchase them. Or we will all suffer at the increase of food prices across the city so that restaurant foods are more in line with the pricing of liquors.

This just doesn't make sense. you cannot judge whether a restaurant is abiding by its food-primary license purely on the dollar values. I can have a glass of cognac from anywhere between $12 and $150 yet am consuming the same quantity of liquor.

"which requires that patrons spend not a penny more on alcohol than they do on food."

That isn't exactly the case, and the example you give is misleading. What the by-law requires is that liquor sales must not exceed food sales over the course of an eight-hour period, not per table or customer. So it would fine for someone to order an expensive wine to complement their dinner even if the wine was more than the food, because the difference may be made up at other tables.

What is needed are a few test-cases to see if this is even an issue. Do food sales at C or Cru or Nu match liquor sales? What about at Earl's and the Keg? And so on, so we know what we're actually debating rather than fear-mongering about enforced food sales.

I agree with you that the by-law should be re-examined and hope that it's re-written to allow more flexibility.

do you really think the liquor police would hassle a high end restaurant with that sort of liquor /food mix?

how about this scenario instead. restaurant XXX known as a great place to hang out situated 2 blocks away from a Club that serves the same amount of food and the same amount of alcohol in a night. The permits and licensing are vastly different for the 2 locations. The first location does not care one flip if they sell a single entre all night because the profit is in the liquor tab. Is the first location a bar or a restaurant? Every weekend the neighbours complain about noise, people urinating in the alley, etc. What can the city do to bring location 1 in line with what we consider normal restaurant service practices?

If I was the bar owner, I would be hopping mad at the current inequity.

Breaking News: Local radio is reporting that the 50/50 bylaw has been yanked. First the Olympic gag law has to be re-written, now this piece of legislation is taken off the order paper. What's going on with these guys? More to come.

What's going on with these guys is that they are responding to public and industry input, like good politicians do. I can never fathom it when critics of a government call for change to legislation then criticize when it happens. Did you want change? Yes? Then applaud the move to change.

Brenton,
responding is one thing - cooking up hair brained ideas that anyone with an ounce of common sense can see are at best half baked and then yanking them to avoid total embarrassment is another thing altogether. It is called incompetence.

Nice spin job, Brenton. Quinlan's arms must get tired pulling at your strings all day.

This was a major flip flop by Vision, and Robertson and Louie must now wear it.

They wouldn't need to pull the pin on this stupid legislation if they had actually consulted with restaurant owners in the first place. It's called consultation, and it doesn't really hurt that much if you try it.

The rules are antiquated certainly.

"BC is known for its outstanding wine" made me comment though. I haven't laughed that hard in a while. You mean the pulp crap being sold as BC wine, with grapes from anywhere but?

My Italian friend down the alley makes better wine that so-called BC wineries.

Maybe you're drinking too much of your neighbour's wine, Warren. You've obviously not visited Naramata, nor the Golden Mile or Black Sage Benches. I'll gladly sip a bottle of Road 13 or Joie Farms over your friend's plonk any day.

Your referring to the lower cost labels from Jackson-Triggs, Mission Hill and Peller Estate that are using imported grapes. I would agree that some of this stuff is not that great, nor is it legitimately local.

There was an interesting news item last night about how Diane Watt is looking to transform Surrey through careful economic development. I don't know if she can succeed but at least energy isn't being spent on restaurant police, vegetable gardens at city hall, chickens in our backyards, bicycle lanes on bridges for a handful of cyclists,grandiose schemes to be the greenest city etc etc. Surrey, which used to be the butt of jokes, is beginning to make us look bad.

sorry Mike - Warren is dead on. Taxes to protect the 'industry' are promoting the advancement of BC plonk. Yes grapes do grow in Penticton and Naramata -- but they rarely ripen, thus the hard as rock whites and thin as paper reds from BC selling for $20, $30 or more in your local stores. It's junk. While Joie makes a good white (for $30!) their best red (I tasted a few weeks back) is to be kind 'flawed'. A sample round of Hester Creek's 'best' whites left me with a gut ache they were so hard - same feeling as if you ate an unripe pear. De- regulate, end the prop upped BC wine industry and give the consumer a choice. While we are at it lets end the monopoly of BCLCB - do what Alberta did and can the lot -- what other retail job pays $60k a year with benefits and pension? Ooops I think I strayed off topic...

There's nothing stopping you, Salmon, from drinking whatever you want. There's plenty of choice at your average liquor store. To shrug off BC as a wine region because of your perceptions of ripening grapes or that one label gives you a headache just shows you've got to find out more what BC has to offer.

I could go on here, as you might expect from a BC wine fanboy, but I do recommend a further look. Joie Farms concentrate on whites. I can't say enough good things about Lake Breeze or Wild Goose. The reds of Innikillin Okanagan are worth high praise, as are those of Fairview Cellars. I mentioned Orofino, which is a real joy to experience. Just 2 weeks ago I had a Naramata Syrah from Marichel Vineyards with friends and we all raved about it. Same goes for Nichol Vineyards – exceptional reds.

As much as the 50/50 food to booze issue is goinf to hurt restaurants, what is more alarming, is the roll back of hours, which will effect over 300 restaurants in the city.

Currently any restaurant with a 2am closing, will, under the new laws, be forced to close at 1am during the week.

If the nite-clubs had their licence's grand-fathered in years ago, so should the restaurants as well.

Could you imagine if city hall decided to roll-back nite club & bar hours!

My god, the liquor primary people would be clammering in the streets!

Vancouver calls itself a "big-city", but acts like a small town, stuck in medieval times, with out-dated liquor laws!


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