Boston's Finally Moving To Expand Liquor Licenses. I'll Drink To That.

March 10, 2017

Cheers to Mayor Marty Walsh and Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley. Once again, they're bellying up to the bar to push a bill that would expand the number of liquor licenses in Boston. The proposal will need approval from both the City Council and the state Legislature. But, if approved, it will allow 152 new liquor licenses for businesses throughout the city through 2019.

Until I moved to the Greater Boston area, I never lived in a city where the subject of liquor license approvals qualified as front-page news. Here, a fraught history makes it a 100-proof mix of bureaucratic morass stirred with political favoritism and racism. Don’t forget that the liquor license approval process that led to an undercover sting sending one local legislator to jail on bribery charges.

Both Walsh and Pressley have backed past proposals to expand the number of licenses. A state law passed three years ago targeted seven neighborhoods, including East Boston, JP, Mattapan, and Roxbury. But in the end, that effort still failed to reach some of the intended recipients. Mattapan, for example, is still without a restaurant that serves alcohol, even though there are busy restaurants in the area. Not only does this new proposal target businesses in Dorchester and East Boston, where there are many fewer restaurants with full bars, but it also limits or denies licenses to already over-served areas like downtown and Beacon Hill.

Walsh and Pressley are ginning up support for the bill by making the business case for focused expansion. Spreading out the licenses will “support the development of restaurant clusters in our business districts that will be economic and social anchors,” Pressley said in a statement. Walsh calls it a “balanced approach” that will provide “an option for larger establishments to receive licenses without hurting our small businesses.”

This is way more than simple cocktail chitchat. Alcohol licenses can make a huge difference to the bottom line for restaurants. Last yea,r several small North End restaurants allowed to serve only beer and wine told the City Council they were losing customers to Seaport-area restaurants that have full bars.

The mayor supports this measure — even as a recovering alcoholic — because he knows increased profits will boost the local economy, going well beyond what’s shaken and stirred in the bars. Nevertheless, I expect public discussions to uncork bottled up resentment about how the licensing process creates obstacles for mom-and-pop restaurants that don't have the same cash flow as white-tablecloth dining rooms.

Boston is now a real player in the national foodie world. It must also be a real player in the booze-with-food market. Expanding liquor licenses, with a focus on under-served areas, helps insure the city moves past its lingering parochial image. (It’s bad enough that Boston can’t, or won’t, support late-night public transportation.)

Maybe a few margaritas on the sunny patio of a Mission Hill bistro can finally help us become a lucrative modern dining scene.

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