A series of hearings on licenses to serve all kinds of liquor today turned into something of a battle between the North End, where restaurants that traditionally serve nothing harder than aperitifs want to up their game and the South Boston waterfront, where lawyers say more hard-liquor licenses are desperately needed to quench the thirsts of the thousands of new residents, workers and visitors flooding the once desolate area.
Because of a quirk in a 2014 law that gave Boston new liquor licenses, the Boston Licensing Board entered the year with 10 "unrestricted" all-alcohol licenses to award. These licenses not only let their holders serve anything from Bud Light to $4,000 bottles of Scotch, but instantly become assets worth upwards of $300,000 that can be used to borrow money - and which can be sold off if the holders go out of business.
The board has already awarded some of the 10 licenses - last week, the board awarded all-alcohol licenses to Fuji, which plans a Japanese restaurant in the Ink Block development in the South End, Cunard Tavern on Orleans Street in East Boston and Piattini, an Italian restaurant on Newbury Street that wanted to move up from its current beer-and-wine license. Some 11 applicants made their cases today - all but one from either the North End or the South Boston Waterfront/Fort Point areas.
City Councilor Sal LaMattina, who represents the North End, supported all five of the requests from North End restaurants for all-alcohol licenses - four from existing restaurants that can serve beer and wine and one from a proposed new place on Hanover Street.
LaMattina said the beer and chianti that long sufficed for the little restaurants of the North End are no longer cutting it with today's hard-charging diners. "Today people are avoiding the North End" and going to the Seaport because they know the restaurants there can serve up the martinis and other adult beverages.
Phil Frattaroli, who wants to replace the beer and wine license he has at his Ducali pizza place on Causeway Street with an all-alcohol license, said he's felt the loss of diners in his bottom line - last year was the first time total receipts shrank rather than grew, he told the board.
Gary Pappas, a North End resident who is also a retired commanding general of the Massachusetts National Guard, said he no longer books as many affairs at another all-alcohol applicant - Cantina Italiana on Hanover Street - because attendance kept dropping as people demanded harder drinks.
At-large City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George also rose to support the application by Cantina Italiana, which opened in 1931, making it the neighborhood's oldest operating restaurant, and which actually had an all alcohol license until 2001, when its owners transferred the license to another restaurant they own. Not only are the owners good people, but they're indicative of the "food and culture of Boston's Little Italy," that is starting to be threatened by both the waterfront and the area around North Station, she said.
William Ferrullo, attorney for Frank DePasquale, owner of Mare on Mechanic Court, said the restaurant deserves a full-liquor license because it's on the Freedom Trail, in a neighborhood that is visited by more people than any other in the city.
Warren Mustachio told the board he really doesn't need a full-liquor license for the Ben Cotto pizza place he's been trying to open at 361 Hanover St., because all he wants to do is serve beer and wine. But he applied for one because they were available, unlike beer-and-wine licenses, and pleaded for the board's help, because he's a fifth-generation North End resident, he's put his life savings into the restaurant and he's been paying rent on the empty space for two years now.
Victor Bragna, who oversees licensing issues for the North End Waterfront Residents Association, asked the board to defer any action on the requests, because none had come before his group.
Waterfront applicants did not address the North End issue, instead pointing to the vast amounts of construction going on along the waterfront and Fort Point as the public need for more liquor in the area.
Aloft Lounge, which hasn't even opened yet, wants to upgrade the beer-and-wine license it has for 401 D St. to a full license. Lawyer Karen Simao said the initial 230 seats would be upgraded to 300 now that the operators realize just how bustling the area is becoming. Proponents made similar arguments for the proposed Lolita Cocina and Tequila Bar at 253 Summer St. and the proposed Tuscan Kitchen at 53 Northern Ave. Backers of the proposed three-level Scorpion Bar and Restaurant/The Grand at 25 Northern Ave. said the large space would prove vital for all the waterfront companies that need a place for private functions.
Also up for consideration: A liquor license for the Yotel hotel at 65 Seaport Blvd., which will feature $200-a-night rooms called "cabins" because they're designed to look like ship's cabins.
The board considers all the requests tomorrow. Members will decide which of the applications will fill a "public need," then dole out licenses based on the order in which the board received them. Applicants who don't get one can try to buy one on the open market - or try their luck next year, when the board will get the authority to issue five more unrestricted licenses.