Saga of Hank’s Oyster Bar’s Outdoor Seating Continues

1624 Q Street, NW

From a press release on June 9th:

Popular and award-winning Dupont Circle restaurant Hank’s Oyster Bar was informed by Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) investigators on Friday evening, June 8, that the establishment would be required to shut down operation of half of its outdoor dining patio pending review of a prior ABC Board decision approving termination of a “Voluntary Agreement” with six area residents.

The sudden and unexpected order came without prior notification and in advance of an ABC Board hearing on the matter scheduled for Wednesday, June 13. The visit by agency investigators came in response to complaints by the small group of original licensing objectors.

The ABC Board’s decision in November 2010 to terminate certain operating restrictions imposed as a result of lengthy negotiations by the business with a small group of six alcohol-licensing opponents had been legally challenged by the protestors. The establishment, located near the corner of 17th and Q streets, N.W., has encountered multiple licensing protests by the ad hoc group since opening in 2005 despite operating without violation of city regulations and being supported by the overwhelming majority of neighborhood residents.

On May 17 the District Court of Appeals directed the ABC Board to review its decision to ensure that all requirements of the termination process had been met, noting that the regulatory language specifying termination standards was poorly written and difficult to understand. Although the appeals court had issued the ruling over three weeks ago, no directive had been issued by either the court or the city requiring any action by the restaurant pending city agency review.

“Having our popular outdoor dining area suddenly shut down without advance warning and as a result of a spurious complaint by the small group of only six objectors who have been harassing the business since we opened seven years ago is shocking,” said Leeds, who was on-site at the time of the surprise visit by city inspectors. “We haven’t even had our ABC Board hearing on this ongoing nuisance protest,” she continued, “and to be told as the summer season begins that we have to eliminate half of our patio seating is unwarranted and unfair.”

Although the matter had been previously scheduled to come before the ABC Board at a meeting next week, resolution of the licensing issue may take a number of weeks or months.

“Quite frankly,” Leeds added, “it is long overdue for the city government to decide whether it is going to continue to allow small gangs of disgruntled residents opposing every liquor license application to delay and destroy progress by the small business community in providing the social amenities desired by local residents in our neighborhoods.”

In a statement to the neighborhood released on Saturday, Leeds indicated “the right of a group of five residents to hold up a license application should be eliminated from the law. Otherwise the situation I find myself in will undoubtedly occur again.”

The prominent and respected local businesswoman and chef, owner of Hank’s Oyster Bar locations in both Dupont Circle and Old Town Alexandria (Va.), plans to open a third location this summer on Capitol Hill at 633 Pennsylvania Avenue, S.E.

Leeds released an open letter to the Dupont Circle community over the weekend.

Full letter after the jump.

“Dear community member:

“I am the chef/owner of Hank’s Oyster Bar, which I opened in 2005. Before opening the restaurant, I applied for an alcoholic beverage license. Although I had already made my name as a chef in Washington, D.C., and had no intention of operating a nightclub, my application was protested by certain individuals living in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. Because, at that time, the ABC Board refused to give me a timely hearing date to contest the protest, I was forced to sign a voluntary agreement, or lose the opportunity to proceed with the project. The voluntary agreement restricted my hours, and prevented me from expanding or otherwise increasing the occupancy of my business.

“In 2010, seeing an opportunity to expand my successful business, I requested that the ABC Board terminate my voluntary agreement. The advisory neighborhood commission (ANC 2B) whole-heartedly supported the request. After a hearing, and a finding that termination of the VA would not have an adverse impact on the neighborhood, the Board ordered the VA terminated.

“The Board then had a hearing on a request to expand my business to include the building next door, and the public space in front of it, and approved that request.

“In the meantime, the few neighbors opposed to me appealed the termination of the VA 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 terminating 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.

“We have our hearing on these last two issues next Wednesday before the ABC Board. We are confident we will prevail, because we did try to work this out with those opposed to us back when we first sought termination of the VA, but they refused to meet. Also, since the Court of Appeals decision was reached, we offered to address their concerns with a more limited VA, but they insist we cut our outdoor occupancy by 25%, even though there have been no complaints. As for changes in the neighborhood, I am sure they are well known to you. Of course, it could take months for the Board to rule.

“Last night, as a result of a complaint by the protesters, we were visited by ABC investigators. We were told we cannot use half of our patio seating area, because of the Court of Appeals decision. This happened before we even have had a hearing before the ABC Board.

“If you agree that allowing a small number of individuals to dictate what happens in our community is wrong, please contact ABRA, Ward 2 CM Jack Evans, CM Jim Graham, Chair of the committee that oversees ABC, and Mayor Vincent Gray. Let them know that the ABC Board should be urged to make a decision quickly after next Wednesday’s hearing, reaffirming the termination of our VA. Also let them know that it is time to stop allowing a few residents to dictate what happens in a neighborhood, particularly when the duly elected ANC members feel otherwise. The right of a group of 5 residents to hold up a license application should be eliminated from the law. Otherwise the situation I find myself in will undoubtedly occur again.


“Jamie Leeds, Chef/Owner, Hank’s Oyster Bar”

77 Comment

  • I was going to ask if it’s legal for these ad-hoc groups to shut down part of business. Protest is one thing, but have parts of the business actually shut down. Aren’t there some ad-hoc groups forming in the U street area (near to 14th street) that are trying to organise or protest alcohol licenses for the area (a liquor moratorium)? Are the outdoor patrons at Hanks a problem in terms of noise and disruption? Whenever I’ve been by the area, I’ve never thought so. I don’t live there so it could be a different matter. This weekend might not be a fair weekend to judge since it was Pride weekend.

    • at least one of these NIMBYs is also involved in the U street moratorium push.

      I’ve never understood the harrassment of Hank’s–it is a treasured asset in the neighborhood.

  • I’m a bit confused. So the bar owner signed a voluntary agreement to not expand the occupancy, expanded anyway, and now is told it should comply with the agreement?

    • You’re right – you are confused. They signed the VA, later made a legal request through the proper channels to terminate it and was granted that.

      “In 2010, seeing an opportunity to expand my successful business, I requested that the ABC Board terminate my voluntary agreement. The advisory neighborhood commission (ANC 2B) whole-heartedly supported the request. After a hearing, and a finding that termination of the VA would not have an adverse impact on the neighborhood, the Board ordered the VA terminated.

      “The Board then had a hearing on a request to expand my business to include the building next door, and the public space in front of it, and approved that request.

  • This sucks! These 6 residents should move to Glen Burnie or Leesburg if they are so against a restaurant. This is part of living in the city. No wonder businesses are closing their doors in the Dupont area and moving elsewhere.

    • Oo, just got one more bingo board square today for “someone saying move to the suburbs”

      • Ceeps, You can add another bingo square on your card for me then too. The residents, neighborhoods, and city as a whole benefit from small businesses such as Hank’s. The ANC process is no longer effective. Two individuals out of the original six are preventing a well-run small business from operating because they simply don’t like the business. Our city taxes are spent needlessly on unnecessary inspections, oversight, hearings, and meetings all because of two unhappy, disgruntled people. So, I’ll say it again….these two should move to the burbs. They obviously don’t like people which is their motivator for fighting everything and anything that tries to open or exist on our neighborhoods.

  • This is proof that the voluntary agreement process is irreparably broken. They put too much power into the hands of crazy NIMBYS.

    • thebear

      Voluntary Agreements would not be absolute necessities today if the District’s zoning and licensing regulations were 1) not a horrendous mess to wade through; 2) not full of contradictions and loopholes; and 3) actually enforced in a consistent and timely manner by the District. Without them, the whole city would be like a Saturday night in Adams Morgan every day of the week.

      What *IS* wrong with the Voluntary Agreement system is that the District still does not enforce conditions in a timely manner (often requiring the parties resort to legal action to get relief). And, some of them are easily subverted by a small group (as in Hank’s “Group of Six”) for their own personal power trips and provide no substantive relief or improvement for the supposedly represented community.

      VAs do need a few rule changes regarding who can be a petitioner and their lifespan:

      1) Must be a permanent resident and registered voter in the District
      2) A party’s sole place of residence in DC must be within a 2-block radius of the establishment
      3) Must have resided at that address for not less than 2 years prior to the petition
      4) Parties must establish exactly how the conditions will directly benefit the greater neighborhood, not just the petitioners personally
      5) If VA is being sought by a group of individuals and there are active rental tenant associations or condo owners associations within a 2-block radius of the establishment, those associations must either explicitly join as parties or otherwise endorse the Agreement
      6) Individual Parties to a VA must recertify annually that they still meet the residency requirement, and if there are fewer than 5 of the original parties remaining, the VA is automatically terminated. (A new group may be formed to establish a new VA.) Participating or Endorsing associations must also continue to support the Agreement on an annual basis in addition to the individual parties quorum.
      7) If a VA has not had any violations of its terms for 3 consecutive years, then it automatically terminates upon its 4th anniversary. However, if violations of VA conditions should present after termination, it can be re-imposed by a majority vote by the ANC, and then cannot be terminated again without agreement by all parties and majority vote of the ANC.

  • Although I love the restaurant, Hanks is definitely in the wrong here.

    Hanks is tried to terminate a VA it had previously reached with the community, rather than renegotiate the process. That was what riled up the ANC to begin with.

    As for suggesting that this was just some random group of residents, the D.C. Court of Appeals prohibits ANCs from serving as a party in a challenge to an ANC rule. Thus the ANC is absent because it is not legally permitted to serve as a party–the court rules force individual residents rather than associations. Under those rules, there simply is no alternative to challenge agreements other than individuals. It is ignorant of Leeds to argue for a repeal. The establishment should instead comply with clearly-established and well understood rules.

    This is a problem entirely of Hanks own making.

    • Agreed.

    • Thanks for the clarification.

      I felt like there was something missing in the press release; there was no explanation of how the six disgruntled residents were connected to the ABC Board’s decision.

      It’s also puzzling how the number of NIMBYers cited is six at first, and then five later.

    • Wrong. The ANC was not opposed here, and was not absent from the court action only because of some technicality. In fact, the Dupont ANC (2B) reached an agreement with Hank’s earlier, while the remaining 6 protestants continued in their actions opposing lifting of the Voluntary Agreement:

      • Haha, “protestants.” Fitting too, because this really is yet another example of puritanism run amok . Like the DC law that said you couldn’t drink on your own front porch (I think now repealed?), and the ban on liquor stores selling on Sundays. It’s embarrassing.

    • No, it is you that are in the wrong. As it says above, nobody opposed vacating the VA when they brought it before the ANC. Some history:

      “And, in spite of the fact that ANC2B voted not to protest the expansion plans, nor to protest Leeds’ request to vacate her VA (on the grounds that her license includes all of the stipulations in the VA, making it redundant), they filed a protest anyway.”

    • Actually, you’re in the wrong. Hank’s applied to the ABC board to terminate the VA, as was their right. The ABC board agreed to terminate, and then the new patio was submitted for the approval process and approved. TWO of six original VA signers appealed the VA termination and have cost Hank’s tens of thousands of dollars in legals fees, and are now forcing the city to waste time and money re-hearing an issue that was already settled quite reasonably to the satisfaction of the vast majority of local residents.

    • Hank’s is in the right. These “voluntary” agreements are anything but. They are a means through which a tiny minority, a few people, can hold a business hostage and exact promises way beyond what zoning and any other on-the-books rules require. If the business doesn’t agree the individuals threaten to protest any hearings and drag the process out interminably. It is an extremely unfair abuse of the current system and should be stopped. I support Hank’s.

      • I disagree. Noise is a huge concern for folks living close to a restaurant. Why should any business have the automatic right to come in and make one person, let alone 5 people’s life hell by having an outdoor patio that closes late? Don’t homeowners have a right to peaceably enjoy their home? Yes, even in the city? Why can’t they seek an agreement to limit hours, etc.? And stop this “move to the suburbs crap” – no one is asking for silence, just a reasonable change to enjoy their life. Why can’t a business limit operating hours, outdoor music, trash, etc.? Why should any business get a blank slate to do as they please? If you don’t live directly across the street from a restaurant or bar, you have no idea what it can be like.

        • Understood. There’s a process to go through to handle all that. Lots of restaurants and bars go through it with residents and the city agency and come to an agreement and move on. In the case of Hank’s, however, residents have for SEVEN YEARS decided to let the single most toxic activist in the neighborhood lead them in that process. So this is what you get. Not a huge mystery here.

        • Oooh, wow, an entire five people inconvenienced?! Clearly that’s worth antagonizing a profitable business patronized by – and this is just me guessing – at least four times as many people.

          Sure, business hours could be limited – that’s why we don’t have a truly late-night scene in the city – but that’s a matter for regulation, discussion, and voting; not the loud voices of a tiny minority.

    • +1

      Don’t forget the inevitable call for swarm criticim from a faceless online community of supporters (customers, foodies, small business owners, et al) who inevitably invoke “NIMBY” accusations at those disagree their view of urban living, especially that it means little more than unlimited opportunites to feed your face.

      • If you believe “NIMBY” is an unfair label, you’ve not been involved much in neighborhood politics in DC. I have, for many years, and NIMBYs exist, and the folks targeting Hank’s, and pushing for a moratorium for 14th and U (despite already having a 50% cap on bars and restaurants) deserve the label “NIMBY” like almost no other individuals across the entire city.

        • the term NIMBY has it’s roots in land management and environmental regulation, specifically related to the nuclear power industry. If you think the term only has currency in relation neighborhood watering holes, I’d recommend finding better history lessons than PoP

          • Which is interesting because nobody suggested that.

          • i cringe every time i hear smartgrowthers use the term NIMBY. yet ignorantly, they do, all the time.

            NIMBY’s fought ammunition dumps, toxins, nuclear facilities, highways. now it’s used to insult people that don’t want bars. it’s a pathetic insult to people who have actually helped this country.

          • But the term also implies that it is perfectly o.k. to let whatever evil is impending happen in someone else’s backyard, so long as it doesn’t directly affect you.

          • it’s a lazy term and a slur by whatever way you look at it.

    • Sorry, but this is wrong and misleading. Firstly, the voluntary agreement was not between the ANC and Leeds, it was between the “Gang of Five” and Leeds. Secondly, Leeds undertook the process written into the DC Code to terminate her VA. So saying that she is at fault for pursuing her legal rights, is totally absurd. ANC can CERTAINLY be parties to Voluntary Agreements, protests of ABC licenses and also court cases. You are totally mistaken in that regard. The ANC was 100% IN FAVOR of terminating the VA and in permitting Leeds expansion. It was the “Gang of Five” that was opposed for their own petty and NIMBY reasons. Everyone is getting the facts wrong. Leeds didn’t “promise not to expand, but decided to expand without asking for permission”. She filed to terminate her VA (which limited occupancy, but didn’t provide any “promise not to expand), the termination was granted by ABRA, the law was changed to permit lateral expansions, and Leeds was permitted by the Board to expand. Stop acting like Leeds hoodwinked some neighborhood groups. They had notice and opportunity to respond to her expansion plans, but ultimately lost in their attempts to prohibit her expansion through the normal and regular legal processes in place. This recent curfuffal is all about one element that the Court of Appeals determined was not addressed by the ABC Board, when the Board terminated the VA. The case was remanded to the Board for further review.

      • +1 Let’s also remember that the gang of five signed this VA containing provisions (13a and 13b) by which they agreed to support relaxation of the liquor license moratorium covering 17th St. And before Jamie ever expanded, or ever filed to terminate her VA, those protestors went back on their word regarding the moratorium. They went into oppositional overdrive against relaxing the moratorium, in 2009. So, they broke THEIR word in the VA. Jamie was dealing with, um, very, very special people here.

  • Aren’t Voluntary Agreements, you know, voluntary? Shouldn’t that imply opting out at any time with no bullshit to deal with?

    • In short:
      No and No.
      Voluntary Agreements are definitely not voluntary, if the business owner wants to open a business. As for opting out, once the VA is established, the Voluntary Agreement is legally binding, so no opting out, if the business owner wants to keep a business open.

      • Actually, that’s incorrect — any alcohol licensed business burdened with a “voluntary” agreement can apply to the ABC Board to have it amended or terminated after four years. The issue in this situation was a decision from the D.C. appeals court as to what elements the board had to consider when either amending or terminating such an agreement (based on some really confusing and poorly written D.C. regulatory language). Hence, they have to review their termination of the one Hank’s was forced to sign and which they previously terminated.

        • The earlier poster was asking if, since the agreement is called voluntary, the business could opt out voluntarily – i.e., unilaterally. And the answer to that, as you know, is No. There is no voluntary opting out of the agreement by the business owner, if the business is still in operation. As a legally binding document it is in effect until it is officially and legally terminated or altered via the proper legal process.

  • Maybe every bar and restaurand on 17th Street should move and leave the buildings vacant to be used as crack houses. Thats what this group that opposes anything in that area deserves.

    • Good point. I’m quite sure that Dupont Circle would revert to the 70s without yuppie bars and restaurants.

  • be careful what you wish for, nimby’s:

    (not that low cost housing is bad, but it’s clearly not what these people wanted)

    • Why is that a bad outcome? Uber liberal Marin should love workforce housing. $88K/year? sounds like public teacher, nurse, and police officer household income

  • Isn’t Hanks on Q part of ward 2 and not ward 1? If so, why would writing a letter to Graham do anything for this cause?

  • Who are these protestors? What is the legal definition of an interested party who would be able to protest? I live on U St, so I’m assuming that I couldnt protest, but is there a specific distance that someone must live within in order to protest?

  • An interesting analysis of the issues that Hank’s is facing:

  • The older articles hint at it, but I *really* would like to know the whole backstory here. It reads like some petty, personal slap fight writ large. Entitled folks with chips on their shoulders, lawyers and the money to pay them are dangerous foes.

    • That space is owned by George Mallios, who also owns Trio/Fox & Hounds. I suspect that the protesters would go after anyone in that space as a way to get to George, who has successfully fought them for years.

      • George Mallios has been here longer than anyone. Trio’s and F&H have been cornerstones of the communities longer than 99% of the neighborhoods residents have been alive.

  • “Quite frankly,” Leeds added, “it is long overdue for the city government voting public to decide whether it is they are going to continue to allow small gangs of disgruntled residents opposing every liquor license application to delay and destroy progress by the small business community in providing the social amenities desired by local residents in our neighborhoods.”


  • What are the names of the two people protesting?

  • thebear

    This “group of six” needs to stop being a bunch of jackwagons and accept the cold, hard reality that they live in the heart of a city, not Wisteria Lane. The difference between protests here in WeDu and there in EDu is we only go after establishments for being bad actors. Over in EDu, they protest anything and everything, whether it directly affects them or not. Most of the drivel I have read and heard from the East Dupont protesters over the last 20 years clams to be about “the neighborhood” and “the community” but once you drill-down it is about nothing but the personal peeves a handful of people have against life in general. Anyone who speaks facts and for the actual good of the greater community is promptly denounced in the most aggressive and hostile manner possible.

    Grow up, suck it up, and just get over the politically correct bs, folks. Having bars and restaurants is not inherently evil, especially since “The Greater Community” has demonstrated it does not much care for ideas like “a cheese shop” in the space where JR’s wanted to expand, or trying to force Trio to reopen the pizza place that burned down where Hank’s is now. “The Greater Community” should focus on keeping the area a vibrant focal point, establish a set of general rules that apply equally to all businesses, and only intervene in situations where an establishment is behaving in a manner that actually disrupts or is detrimental to the character or quality of life of the neighborhood.

    If only other residents in that vicinity would muster the courage to stand up to their over the top neighbors, show up in strong numbers at the ABC and ANC meetings IN SUPPORT OF HANK’S or other establishments being unjustly targeted and show the whiners up for what they truly are.

    • The “Shaw Dupont Citizens Alliance” are the folks behind the proposed U Street liquor license moratorium, and yes this group is NIMBYism taken to the extreme. The new organization is run by 6 officers and 4 board members, all of whom are intimately connected. The president and one of the board members live in the same house near 13th and S. The treasurer and other board member are next door neighbors on Wallach, barely a block away from the president. Two other board members also live (together) on Wallach (where they operate the anti-development blog “U Street Dirt”) and the Vice President’s house is right across the street from them. Finally, the secretary is the partner of ANC2B09 Commissioner Ramon Estrada, who lives less than a block away from Wallach on the other side of 14th.

      The group limits its membership to residents living between 12th and 15th Streets and S and U Streets — but the proposed moratorium would extend as far east as 8th Street and as far north as Belmont!

      How dare this group purport to speak for anyone but themselves? And how dare Mr. Estrada seek to encroach on the territory of ANC1B02 through this bogus organization?

      • I was going to ask if by intimate you meant sleeping together but apparently you answered my question in the disseration that follows. My only question left is how you know who they are, where they live and with whom they are sleeping. Ha

        • To answer your question, some of this information was reported on Borderstan, which interviewed the president. The rest was easy — a quick google search of the officers and directors. All publicly available stuff.

      • Sounds very much like the notorious group who kept Mount Pleasant businesses down for years and years.

      • Very good breakdown of the group. The Wallach Street NIMBYs are trying to block every new apartment project in Wards 1 and 2 now. They want absolutely no new residents period. I’ve overheard some of their very racist remarks too. Very sad….

    • I totally agree with you. The group of people against Hanks and other restaurants in that area need to get a life. However, they had rather spend their time being the neighborhood “Gladys Kravitz.”

      • thebear

        The difference between these folks and Gladys Kravits is no one gave Gladys’ ranting any consideration. I wish “that Stevens woman!” would make them question their own sanity.

    • Bear,

      West Dupont is west of the circle and East Dupont is east of the circle? Is that how EDu and WeDu are divided?

      • thebear

        Connecticut Avenue is more or less the dividing line.

        BTW, the only reason we even have an ABC moratorium over here is because DCCA strong-armed the ANC into making it happen; it was not a broad-based, neighborhood issue and no one would have cared were it not for DCCA’s sticking their nose into everyone’s business. They have been absolutely no help in dealing with the *one* establishment that has been a nuisance to everyone because “most of the residents of that block are renters and not owners…that is what your tenant association is for.”

  • I’d LOVE to make Hank’s a new clubby hotspot and see how the protesters like that 😛

    They’ll YEARN for the days when Hank’s was simply a restaurant with good oysters.

  • There’s a pearl waiting inside all of this: Jamie Leeds is going to shuck herself some NIMBYs.

  • This MetroWeekly story has the names of the protestors.
    This saga has been dragging on for 7 years.

  • The court case also lists the names of the NIMBYs. They tend to live west of 17th St.

  • Thinking I should make an appearance in support of Jamie Leeds on Wednesday. Anyone care to join me? The hearing is scheduled for the late afternoon, I believe.

  • Anyone know the names of these six goobers?

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