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”

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