How come you can drink a glass of wine at some sidewalk cafés and not others?
Scene One: You don’t even want to know when this is. But I was a student, in Wellington, New Zealand. A Friday.
“Five o’clock!” says my friend Mitch.
There’s a crash as we all upend our desks, grab our bags, and head for the door.
“Thistle! They know us!”
And six of us run like hell, heading for the red cable car. Five minutes later we leap on the side seats just as it starts jerking down the hill. Ten minutes later we’re haring along Lambton Quay and into the Thistle Inn. Just like sinners have been doing since it opened in 1840.
“Line ’em up,” says Mitch.
Merv the barman knows the drill. He starts filling pitchers, one, two, three, six pitchers of DB Lager, till they’re standing in front of us like little stained-glass windows.
“Go!” says Mitch.
We each grab our pitcher and start pouring into our glasses, glugging, pouring, glugging, pouring — till every swallow becomes torture for all of us except Mitch. He’s the golden boy because he has learned to pour the stuff down without swallowing. He slams the last glass down on the bar. Checks his watch. Hauls up his shirt front to wipe his mouth and chin.
“One-57, gentlemen. The 2-minute barrier! Broken! A new world record.”
“Fluke!” says George. He turns to Merv. “Again!”
So, yeah, this was drinking, back in the day. And it wasn’t our fault. Okay, only partly. But the fact was, us wild colonial boys lived under a regime that was unforgiving. In the name of Puritanical Family Values, all bars in the nation had to stop serving booze at 6 p.m. That’s right. By 6:15, guys (no sheilas — they weren’t allowed in public bars) had to be out. On the street. We guys spewed onto the sidewalk, hanging on to lamp posts, some losing it all into the gutter, while barmen hosed it down like we were cows in a cowshed.
A couple of years and many Friday nights later, some of us had gained a little OE (overseas experience), had seen how the French did it, and realized there was a better way. We started, if you can believe, the “Campaign for Civilized Drinking,” which had this vision of turning Wellington into a kinda scene from Gigi: cafés, boulevards, the whole package. But what we basically fought for (and it was a vicious fight) was just to extend pub hours to — Shock! Horror! — ten o’clock at night.
And even when we won, and the Kiwi family didn’t collapse, we felt something was still missing. We were still drinking behind frosted glass like people committing a shameful act, walled away from “regular people,” so they didn’t have to see us sinning away, even if it was sipping wine and not guzzling DB Lager by the pitcher. The law was changed, but the perception remained. Drinking, like all the other mortal sins, could be tolerated, but never fully integrated into public life. The idea of sitting at a table out on the sidewalk of a street with a glass of vino was unthinkable. Mothers might have to shield their kids’ eyes as they walked by! And even if the hours were extended, you still had red-blooded Kiwi males socking it back like real men, not sipping it like some stem-spinning wimp from France. We could see: this was going to be a lo-o-ong metamorphosis.
Coronado, California, 2014. I’m standing at the counter in Café 1134 in Coronado, thinking about this.
The thing I had gotten to love about Café 1134, on Orange Avenue, next to Lamb’s Players Theater, was Michelle, the barista who had turned herself into an expert on San Diego beers. They always had good deals on their house wines.
So, Friday nights, at the end of a hard day straining the little gray cells and ranging the fingers over the vast Serengeti of my Logitech keyboard, nothing could be more pleasant than seeking solace in the sunset on the sidewalk outside Café 1134 and watching the theater crowd start to clump up excitedly outside Lamb’s.
Then, some idiot in Sacramento apparently decided to give the ABC — the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control — more money to hire more inspectors.
Disaster! Suddenly, they had enough extra staff to regularly inspect Coronado cafés for license compliance. Liquor licenses. Licenses for sidewalk patio drinking.
That was the word on the street, anyway. So, that first, shocking Friday night, when Michelle the barista comes up, I ask about her beers. They have a rack of interesting-looking 22-ouncers on the baroque backboard that anchors the split-level space. I see they have a Modern Times “Black House,” their “coffee-roasty stout.” Love that stuff. So she pours it, hands it over, and I’m starting toward the front door, to go sit at one of the tables on Orange Avenue, the island’s main drag.
“Uh, no. You have to drink it here, inside,” says Michelle. “ABC came ’round. Said we had to have special fences to protect the public from your drinking outside. But you can drink out the back if you like.”
“Michelle-san. We come here to sip and watch the world go by. Not count garbage cans out back.”
“Nothing we can do without a way-expensive redo out front, with fences and permits,” she says. “Because Orange Avenue is a state highway, 75. That means the tables are on state land. We’d have to deal with the city, and the state, and ABC.”
It seems I’m just going to have to sit and watch the world go by from inside the window.
Sigh. Not the same. If I was drinking that other stimulant, coffee, no problem. Yet, I can’t drink a Modern Times stout on the sidewalk. Feel petulance rising to dangerous levels. You just get the feeling that this is ridiculous. Are we children? What will be the societal consequences if we sip our wine outside?
I don’t go to 1134 anymore for a glass of wine or a beer. It’s not their fault. This law has poured cold water on the warm conviviality of relaxing out where le tout Coronado passes by.
But what I do do is take an informal survey of Orange Avenue eateries. At the first two places, which I won’t name, because I don’t want ABC to target them because of me, they have outside tables but none of those iron grille fences surrounding them that take up so much space in the Gaslamp. At first they tell me, “We’re not supposed to, but if you want to drink outside we can put your beer or wine in a to-go coffee cup to drink out there and nobody will notice.”
The next place tells me they do the same, or if it’s bottles of beer, they can put them in brown paper bags.
I mean, appreciate the gesture, but this is crazy. Why, on this elegant boulevard, do paying customers have to be drinking out of paper bags?
Then, at the third place, the welcomer says, “No problemo. Take a seat anywhere. Wine? Beer?”
This is Island Pasta, the Italian place, and guess what? It has no wrought-iron fence either, no Perspex protection screens. Just a few planters at either end. And people sitting right outside by the sidewalk happily drinking glasses of wine, beer, lemonade, coffee, whatever.
So, what’s the criterion? How come you can sip your merlot here, but not at Café 1134?
“This is asinine,” agrees Brant Sarbor, who owns Island Pasta. He also owns Costa Azul, a fully licensed café-restaurant further up Orange. “It’s absolutely crazy that they will allow it in places all up and down Orange Avenue. But then, all of a sudden, this one place can’t do it? Or this other one can or this other one can’t? It doesn’t seem like it makes any sense.”
And liquor licenses are not inexpensive, he says. “The beer-and-wine license I think is around $75,000. And if you want to have a bar, and entertainment, it’s almost going to be $125,000–$150,000 for these licenses, just to be able to do what you want to do.”
And the wrought-iron barriers you have to have around your seating area? “I don’t think a [barrier] is saving us from anything. The only thing that I think it has any kind of prudence [sic] is because it’s on city or state property. So if somebody got hurt, or something happened there on that property, when and if they were drinking or whatever, then there could be some issues with the city or state, that has to be taken care of. Somebody could say ‘We’re on city property, and somebody was there and was drunk, and they tripped me.’”
He has a point there. Except, if that’s the case, how come his Island Pasta doesn’t need to have wrought-iron fences like everybody else?
“Just luck. We own this little piece of land beside the sidewalk. And the magic thing is it curves away from Highway 75. We’re just outside [city and state highway land]. It’s ours. That’s how come we can have people drinking outside on the patio.”
But no fences? I mean, isn’t this like unprotected sex?
“For the 25 years we’ve had Island Pasta, we’ve never had an issue,” says Sarbor.
But these are changing times, he acknowledges.
“Before, drinking was done at [hardcore bars like] Danny’s and Secret Harbor, behind frosted-glass windows and doors. But now the new wave of cafés, coffee shops, and little places, somebody wants to be able to serve wine out there so customers can have a glass with their friends. They’re not having five bottles of wine with one person who’s getting all messed up. That’s not what the issue is anymore. But if they can say, ‘Go ahead and drink out here,’ where is the actual property line?”
I take my questions to the city. Or at least to Casey Tanaka, the history teacher who has just retired as Coronado’s 50th mayor after eight years.
I meet him at a Starbucks to ask this basic question:
“How come, say, Café 1134 can’t allow me to take my glass of wine outside, when the weather, the boulevard, the median gardens all cry out for people to be able to relax and sip right out there?”
For Tanaka, it’s all about market forces.
“It’s economic. People in the alcohol business will tell you how much each seat in the restaurant is worth. At 1134, they have discouraged themselves from making the improvements required. If they don’t want to put the fencing in that everyone else has, then that’s not a public policy issue, it’s an 1134 free-market issue. It isn’t worth the money for them to make the changes. That’s not a government problem....
“So, when you’re adding more square footage for people to drink behind fenced area outdoors, it’s about money. Everywhere where you have alcohol outside has met those rules about fencing it in. So you have a controlled substance that’s being controlled. 1134’s problem is that you would like to drink your alcohol outside, and you can’t because they won’t fence it in.”
But why is a fence necessary?
“Because alcohol is a controlled substance, and you’re not controlling it if you don’t control your physical space. That’s the rule. And if an individual doesn’t want to follow that rule, then you don’t get the privilege. It’s just as simple as that.
“The fence is a reasonable rule, and I would tell you that everything about Café 1134 is anomalous as an example. You have a very small square footage of outdoor space — it’s perfect café space. And usually one thinks of coffee and not alcoholic beverages. And in California, if you want to serve alcohol outdoors, you have to enclose your outdoor space. And they don’t have much outdoor space. It’s not cost-effective. What percentage of their sales is alcohol? It’s probably less than 10 percent. So all of that is anomalous. Everywhere that does sell their alcohol outdoors, the square footage of their outdoor space is higher, therefore their chance to make money at alcohol is higher, and because a bigger chunk of their sales is from alcohol sales, it’s worth their money to invest and enclose their outdoor space.”
But he has to admit, social drinking has changed, right?
“Certainly. Now that people, kids, see their parents having one glass of wine with dinner, or going out with their friends and having a glass of wine or beer, they’re not doing what the drunken sailors used to do. It’s not the old days.”
But ABC seems to be doing most of the deciding on these issues. So how come a state-level agency is able to roll a city like Coronado as to the social priorities in its own turf, which presumably it knows best?
“It is not my opinion that ABC is that responsive to cities,” he says, carefully. “I think they do a good job of asking us for our opinion. But in the end they have the final say on liquor licenses and things. The City of Coronado and cities in general don’t have the final say. But the rules are pretty general. In the Gaslamp, you still have to be enclosed. I can’t think of a place downtown where you can have alcohol and not have a fence.”
But over the bridge in Little Italy, maybe things are changing. Hope certainly comes with the nearing-completion Piazza Della Famiglia pedestrian way between India and Columbia streets. The plan gives plenty of room for cafés to spread their wings.
And at Bar One, Jimmy Barone’s (get the joke?) new bar on lower India Street, they don’t have a fence to separate the passersby from the customers. Instead, “Little Italy” brass studs have been sunk into the pavement to mark corners and black lines show the edge of the café area. The tall plank-slat tables with green-topped stools stand loosely with the area. Sidewalk and patio are one, yet subtly separated. No more a sense of being crammed in a holding pen.
“It’s called the Seamless Patio,” Hunter the barkeep told me first time I went, last November. “We’re experimenting with the city. Just keep the tables behind the studs in the sidewalk. Simple. Less bulky. Friendlier interface. Hoping it works.”
“Except you can’t drink out here, said Alex the server.
“But you’re a bar. Why not?”
“Go ask the city. Or ABC.”
But since then, the guys at Bar One say, the authorities have relented, okaying wine and beer consumption out on the patio.
On the other hand, up at Pappalecco’s on Cedar and State, two blocks from India Street, I ask for a bottle of Italian beer. “Can I drink it outside?” I ask.
“Oh, yes,” says the barista.
So, I head out the corner door. On the right, Cedar Street side, a row of picnic tables. On the left, on State Street before the barber’s shop, a big ol’ farm table. I’m about to sit down there when the voice comes. “Uh, no, sir. You can’t drink there. We only have a permit for drinking alcohol at the Cedar Street tables.”
“But why not?”
“We don’t know,” she says. “Probably the ABC? Maybe the city?”
Okay. So what? Does all this matter? Maybe it does. All these persnickety, inconsistent rules put roadblocks into free-flowing social intercourse. And social intercourse is important to a society.
Cafés are becoming important. Cities are changing. People are sick of being lonely, stuck out in, like, Car Country Carlsbad. The home is less and less the social locus of city living. Walking distance is becoming important. Fewer young people, from millennials onward, are even bothering to get a driver’s license: for 20–24-year-olds, the figure has dropped from 91.8 percent in 1983 to 76.7 percent in 2014. A quarter of young adults don’t know how to drive, according to the New York Post. Only a quarter of 16-year-olds in Michigan — the spiritual home of the automoblie — do. Why? Too busy, many respondents told University of Michigan researchers. My bet is their fingers are doing the walking. Call it e-walking. Those who are employed can use Go to Meeting to talk to the boss. Today, people want to live within a ten-minute walk — that’s walk — of a café. You see it in the property market. Proof? What they call the Starbucks Effect: houses located close to a Starbucks went up in value on average 96 percent between 1997 and 2013, vs. houses without a Starbucks nearby, whose value rose only 65 percent in that same time period, according to Zillow, the real estate research group. In Boston, homes near a Starbucks went up 171 percent, 45 percentage points more than all homes in the city.
At the same time, the ability to work from home, to use Go to Meeting, is turning cafés into the new offices. Coffee while you work? A drink after you’ve finished? Why should you have to change location? To the question, “Coffee or a drink?” at least with Modern Times’ Coffee Stout, the answer is “Yes.” Ditto cafés vs. pubs.
Although it has to be said, Starbucks Coronado tried for a wine-and-beer license but was shouted down by residents.
There’s a bunch of literature out on this evolving subject. Take The Thinking Space by Leona Rittner and W. Scott Haine.
“The café is not only a place to enjoy a cup of coffee, it is also a space — distinct from its urban environment — in which to reflect and take part in intellectual debate. Since the 18th Century in Europe, intellectuals and artists have gathered in cafés to exchange ideas, inspirations, and information that has driven the cultural agenda for Europe and the world. Without the café, would there have been a Karl Marx or Jean-Paul Sartre...? However, few have investigated the ways in which cafés create a cultural and intellectual space that brings together multiple influences and intellectual practices and shapes the urban settings of which they are a party.... As our global society becomes more focused on creativity and mobility the intellectual cafés of past generations can also serve as inspiration for contemporary and future knowledge workers who will expand and develop this tradition of using and thinking in space.”
You could say cafés created our civilization. They started not in Europe, but in 1400s Middle East, especially after they started brewing coffee in the Arabian peninsula. A Mr. Shemsi of Damascus and Mr. Hekem of Aleppo are the first coffeehouse proprietors ever recorded, when they opened their place in Constantinople in 1555. In the Ottoman Empire coffeehouses became known as places to talk politics and listen to storytellers.
Cafés followed coffee to Vienna and Paris and London. One of the first adaptations of the Oriental Coffee House was and still is Café Procope at 13, Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie in Paris, which opened in 1686. They say places like Procope made the French Revolution possible. Voltaire (favorite drink, coffee and chocolate), Benjamin Franklin (the great friend of republicanism was mourned here when he died in 1790), Robespierre would stop by, Napoleon played chess here. Even Danton would take several cups of coffee before mounting the tribune. “The horse must have its oats,” he said.
Today, no self-respecting Parisian café doesn’t have sidewalk seating, coffee, wine, beer, and more inside and out, and hopefully plenty of good arguments.
The net result was gathering places bursting with “an intangible flow of wit,” which was a boost to the intellectual verve of Paris. Conversation as an art quickened.
Bringing back talk?
Ray Oldenburg, in his book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community talks of “Third Places,” where people can gather, put aside the concerns of work and home, and hang out simply for the pleasures of good company and lively conversation [which form] “the heart of a community’s social vitality and the grass roots of democracy.”
Oldenburg says modern suburbanites spend nearly all their time in isolated first (home) and second (work) places. But “third places” offer a neutral public space for a community to connect and establish bonds. Third places “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.”
Cafés, coffeehouses, and other “third places,” Oldenburg argues, promote social equality by leveling the status of guests, provide a setting for grassroots politics, create habits of public association, and offer psychological support to individuals and communities.
And cafés with sidewalk seating? Even more pro-egalitarian, because they reach out to people passing along the block. Walkers, not drivers. It’s easy to talk, to sit down, to get caught up in a discussion. Especially with coffee, beer, or both.
The proliferation of cafés, Oldenburg says, is a marker of a city’s intellectual development.
And San Diego’s café life? You really have to credit Bassam Shamma with bringing the café to our town. In 1991, down on Fourth and Market, he created the “first real coffee house in California.” That’s his claim, and I haven’t heard any challenges.
Bassam is Palestinian, from Jordan. “I wanted this to be like a Middle Eastern café, a little bit French, a sort of daily meeting place,” he told me. “And I’m a collector, so I have filled it with things that interest me, but also for people to look at or buy, like period jewelry, crystal, teas, cigars.”
But the idea of a place, a third place, to spend time, talk, study, hear good music, learn to tango, that was his, and that animates the place.
One of the things I love doing in this town is heading up to Bankers Hill (to Bassam’s present location at Fifth and Redwood) and dropping in for a $2 cup of excellent coffee, a $5 glass of Bassam’s port, and for sure lots of good conversation on that narrow patio along Fifth Avenue.
Oh, about our beer-chugging competitions in Kiwiland? The wrongest start in life. But partly I blame the laws: they presumed the worst in us and treated us like delinquents. We obliged. By now though, we should have grown up, shouldn’t we? But so should the laws.