The long arm of the law doesn’t like bargain basement cocktail specials – even if they’re whipped up to help struggling restaurants drum up business during a slow January.
Anton’s, the West Village eatery that drew crowds – and a column in last week’s Side Dish – with its 25 cent martinis and Manhattans – was slapped by the State Liquor Authority last Wednesday with a warning. Turns out, the booze special that packed ‘em in ran afoul of state law that forbids discounts of more than 50% off normal prices.
That meant the deal, which was offered during lunchtime this month on Wednesdays through Fridays and which was packed inside was actually illegal – and it’s no more.
“The place was packed. It broke the internet,” said Marie Assante, a food publicist who dined at Anton’s last Thursday. “I’ve never seen a lunch spot as crowded and vibrant at 2:45 p.m. as I did last Thursday. People were celebrating with friends or working remotely on their computers.”
The SLA didn’t charge Anton’s with an official violation, but let the restaurant off with a warning, an SLA spokesperson told Side Dish. The SLA has issued only 19 charges since 2018 with violating the rule that forbids charging a price for a drink that’s less than half the typical cost. (The regulator also forbids offering unlimited all-you-can-drink specials.)
Even though some state laws around liquor have been relaxed during the pandemic – like the to-go drinks that Gov. Kathy Hochul says she wants to make permanent – there are still strict rules in place for the selling of alcohol.
Nick Anderer, a co-owner of Anton’s, wouldn’t comment to Side Dish, but an Instagram post confirmed that the state had intervened in the restaurant’s 25-cent special, which owners told Side Dish last week had been inspired by a New Orleans group of establishments that had done the same thing to goose business.
“Due to an obscure NY State liquor law, of which we were completely unaware, and for which we received no warning or notice, we can no longer offer 25 cent martinis and Manhattans,” Anderer said.
The new price for martinis and Manhattans: $9 during lunch hours.
“Apparently, ‘special’ prices on liquor/wine cannot be offered any lower than 50% of an establishment’s regular pricing,” Anderer explained. “Wish us luck as we battle through a pending SLA case … and please don’t cancel your lunch reservations…!”
Morgan Raum, head of membership at Lox Club, a culturally Jewish members-based dating app, celebrated her 25th birthday at Anton’s last week with three colleagues – and was drawn in by the now-forbidden drinks special.
“It was a 10-minute walk from our office in the Meatpacking District and we wanted to try the martinis and thought it was a great occasion for it,” she said, adding that they had one each. “It was packed. I thought it was such a cute restaurant. I had never been there before and I probably would never have gone if I hadn’t heard about the offer. Now I want to live in the West Village!” (She currently resides on the Upper East Side.)
Raum said she was shocked that the SLA shut down the martini deal. “That’s terrible,” she said. “It doesn’t seem fair at all. I would still totally go back.”
Andrew Rigie, executive director of NYC’s Hospitality Alliance, says he can’t comment on individual cases. Still, he said: “Many of the state’s liquor laws are from early post-prohibition times and should definitely be reviewed to determine their appropriateness in 2022, especially as our city’s restaurants and bars are in the middle of a crisis and fighting to recover.”
Robert Bookman, a partner at Pesetsky & Bookman, specializing in alcohol law, explains how he sees the SLA’s logic: “There’s good public policy behind the law, and that’s temperance. They don’t want 10 cent drafts and people getting drunk. But the purpose of the law is compliance. It shouldn’t be punitive,” Bookman said, adding that restaurants with clean records should get off with a warning the first time, and not have to pay a fine.
However, he added, “stretching the law for COVID is not the argument to make.”
Other restaurateurs are taking note, however, as alcohol and food deals can be merged.
“That’s the workaround,” said an insider who did not want to be named for fear of SLA retaliation. “You can offer specials like a $12 martini that comes with a dozen oysters for free – just not the other way around. It’s absurd. They can torture people, like come in and test your drinks to make sure the alcohol isn’t being watered down. You just have to outsmart them.”
Meanwhile, the SLA’s move has come under fire from some fellow restaurateurs, like James Mallios, of Amali on the Upper East Side, who is also a restaurant lawyer.
“The SLA wants to avoid bars and restaurants encouraging people from getting blackout drunk with all-you-can-drink offers, but I’ve never heard of that 50% rule being used in this context,” Mallios said. “They are worried about someone’s PR gimmick? Come on. Seriously!”