Doyle’s, the beloved Jamaica Plain bar that’s been in business since 1882, survived Prohibition; survived the once-controversial arrival of women as patrons; survived busloads of tourists from the Sam Adams brewery.
What ultimately killed it — or, more precisely, created an economic incentive for the owner to kill it himself — was the city’s archaic liquor licensing system.
As the Globe reported Tuesday, Doyle’s will sell its license to Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse, which paid $455,000 for the precious piece of paper that allows it to serve a full bar seven days a week at a new restaurant planned for the Seaport. In a month or two, the gathering spot for generations of neighborhood residents and Boston politicos will shut its doors forever.
It joins the migration of other liquor licenses from neighborhood bars to downtown, which has left some pockets of the city with little-to-no full service, sit-down restaurants.
There are no villains in this story. Who can blame the bar’s current owner, Gerry Burke Jr., for cashing in, or Davio’s for paying the market rate to acquire one of the limited-supply licenses? The Burke family also owns the real estate on Washington Street, which is also rising in value. “But the real estate in JP is as high as it’s going to get, and I can’t afford to stay here any more,” Burke told the Globe.
Real estate prices might be beyond politicians’ control, but politicians created the liquor licensing system — and maybe a loss that hits so close to home will be a wake-up call that it’s no longer working in the public interest.
The arbitrary cap on the number of liquor licenses in the city — and the ability of license holders to sell unrestricted licenses like the one Doyle’s has — limits economic opportunities and raises the price of entering the restaurant industry beyond the reach of many. And it harms neighborhood vitality, as JP residents are about to find out the hard way.
Ideally, the city should scrap the cap, get rid of transferable licenses, and shift to a simple permitting system instead. The original cap dates to the Depression and is widely believed to reflect the prejudices of Beacon Hill’s then-leaders against Irish-Americans. No licenses doesn’t mean no rules: Restaurants should still have to demonstrate they can responsibly serve alcohol.
Transitioning to such a system, though, would be tricky — and is only going to get trickier the longer the city waits and the more the value of existing licenses rises.
After all, the owner of Doyle’s isn’t the only local restaurateur who counts a valuable license as an asset. And Davio’s isn’t the only restaurant to spend big money on a license, giving them an understandable reason to complain if the city were to suddenly let competitors enter the market without one.
Still, those businesses assume the future value of government-issued licenses at their own risk. The city has diluted the value of existing licenses somewhat by adding a few more in recent years, and that’s one way forward. Earlier this year, Mayor Marty Walsh asked Beacon Hill for another 184 new licenses that would be nontransferable, and that would be a big step in the right direction.
Or the city could phase out transferable licenses in a way that softens the financial impact on existing restaurants, giving them some time to adjust.
Either way, the city (and state Legislature, which has to approve changes to liquor rules) needs to take a hard look at overhauling the system before more neighborhood institutions announce their own last call.