The Drinks Are on Them

In dominating the city’s liquor license scene, the law firm of McDermott, Quilty & Miller has lots to celebrate. The rest of us? Not so much.

On a Wednesday morning in September, attorney Dennis Quilty stepped before the three members of the Boston Licensing Board on behalf of Noche, a Latin-themed restaurant planned for the South End. The board—a critical if often-overlooked part of city government—had to decide whether the restaurant would be able to serve liquor and stay open until 2 in the morning. On its face, the request seemed doomed. Noche wasn’t just located in a residential neighborhood, but also in a condo building, and neighbors tend to hate 2 a.m. closings, for all the obvious reasons: the noise, the mess, the drunken altercations. And because neighbors hate 2 a.m. closings, the licensing board typically hates 2 a.m. closings, too.

But the board did not hate this 2 a.m. closing. After chairman Daniel Pokaski spent a couple of minutes questioning Quilty and his clients, he asked if anyone was there to support the proposal. A representative from the mayor’s office stood up, followed by a rep from City Councilor Bill Linehan’s office. Finally, and most improbably, a rep from the Ellis South End Neighborhood Association, David Mundel, stood up. “We feel comfortable with this applicant and the relationship we’ve established,” Mundel told the board. Pokaski asked if anyone was there to oppose. Silence. Noche was granted its request.

To the uninitiated, this bureaucratic exercise might appear utterly humdrum. “Restaurant Gets License” is not exactly Herald headline fodder. Yet the licensing board affects Bostonians’ daily lives to an astonishing degree. Want a beer outside Fenway? The board has to okay the vendor. A late-night martini in the Theater District? Ditto. A glass of wine on a Newbury Street patio? You guessed it.

But the board’s power extends beyond determining who can serve booze. Because so few restaurants can make a profit without alcohol sales, the three commissioners effectively decide which establishments will be able to survive, and which will not.

The situation may be frustrating for would-be restaurateurs, but it’s been a godsend for one small law firm, the same group that represented Noche before the board that September morning: McDermott, Quilty & Miller. Nobody, it turns out, is better at getting a desired outcome from the Boston Licensing Board. In 2006, for example, when the state took the rare step of allowing the city to dole out 20 new full liquor licenses, nearly two-thirds went to their clients.

“They have the expertise,” says Robert Russo, a lawyer who has appeared before the licensing board frequently. “They have it down to a science.”

The state’s byzantine laws mean McDermott, Quilty & Miller also plays an outsize role in one of Boston’s most high-profile industries: In a very real sense, these lawyers are the arbiters of where, and how, we eat in this town.