This post was written by R Street Institute President Eli Lehrer.
Growing up in Chicago, I saw bars as a neighborhood institutions. Some served hot dogs or pizza puffs, but most were pure drinking places. As an adult, I’ve lived in Virginia, which requires all establishments with liquor licenses to have kitchens and derive at least 45 percent of sales from food and thus has no bars per se. Washington, D.C., where I’ve worked for 21 years now has a “tavern license” for places that want to emphasize drinks. But few exist. The Washingtonian magazine’s list of the Best Bars in Washington, D.C.includes only five District-located places that are bars without significant food menus. Indeed, many of the best known “bar” hangouts in the city like the Front Page and Union Pub have extensive menus. So, why?
Many obvious reasons don’t survive scrutiny. High D.C. rents can’t stop taverns alone since they thrive in places with even higher rents like San Francisco. Food produces another revenue and potential profit stream, of course, but that’s so everywhere. The non-family demographics of the city are similar to those of Manhattan, much of the Bay Area, Chicago’s North side, Seattle and dozens of other places with thriving bar scenes. And the idea that young professionals don’t like bars per se seems incorrect: alcohol use tends to decrease with age and people without families have more time to hang out at bars after work.
Instead, transience, immigration patterns and institutions seem to explain the District’s lack of bars. First transience. More than 60 percent of the population of the District was born elsewhere and that percentage has risen in recent years. Only places with big retirement communities have as many transplants. Strong neighborhood institutions like taverns which must differentiate by vibe rather than menu (serving beer requires little skill and simple cocktails are hard to differentiate) aren’t going to thrive in places where people move.
The nature of immigration also matters. While D.C. did once attracted many people from Ireland, home to the world’s best-known pub culture, the city’s historic Irish neighborhood, Swampoodle now exists only in a park’s name. Modern D.C. attracts relatively few immigrants and the group of new arrivals most prominent as hospitality entrepreneurs--Ethiopians--come from a country with a large Muslim population and thus little bar culture.
Finally, the District’s unique Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) present a barrier with their de facto veto over new liquor licenses. This makes taverns’ entire business subject to an additional obstacle. My colleague Nick Zaiac points out that for an ANC member (each of whom represents about 2,000 people) helping to block a bar might add political capital in a way that it wouldn’t for a council member representing a larger district.
Bottom line: D.C.’s culture and its institutions just aren’t friendly to taverns. And this probably isn’t going to change.