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.

According to Ross, situations like Duran’s point to why we need more licenses. “The city of Boston is growing. There are new neighborhoods on the horizon; there are old neighborhoods reinventing themselves,” he says. “Whether it’s Mission Hill or the South End or East Boston, as the caliber and quality of the retail restaurant experience improves, these neighborhoods grow and improve and strengthen. We have a need for additional licenses right now in virtually every neighborhood in the city.”

Alas, there’s little hope new licenses will be created anytime soon. For that to happen, the Boston City Council would have to make a formal request to the state legislature, which would then take up the matter and pass it on to the governor to sign. In doing so, all three political forces would have to overcome the vociferous lobbying of current license holders, who are loath to see the market flooded. As far as anyone can recall, the 2006 licenses are the only new ones ever issued in bulk in the city, and it took two years of hard politicking to get them through. It hasn’t helped that it was exactly this process that gave rise to the Wilkerson mess. For now, no politicians in their right mind will get anywhere near liquor license legislation.

As up-and-coming neighborhoods like Roslindale, Roxbury, and Dorchester continue to lose out, so do the foodies who frequent so many downtown haunts. Small operators like the Cushmans are the ones most likely to innovate, but they’re also the least likely to be able to afford a liquor license. That’s left us with an increasingly dull culinary scene. “The only restaurateurs that can afford a $250,000 license are big chain restaurants,” Nancy Cushman says. “I don’t think that’s what we want Boston to turn into.”

“That’s why a lot of [restaurateurs] boycott the city,” says Charlie Perkins, who brokers restaurant (and liquor license) sales as the head of the Boston Restaurant Group. “You have to pay $200,000 just to serve a drink. A lot of people go to the suburbs.” He says New York is also a more attractive place to do business because it has no cap on licenses and relatively few restrictions.

Of course, nobody’s doing much to improve the situation. And when you think about it, nobody has much motivation. Under the status quo, the city politicians retain their influence over the licensing board. The state politicians hold their leverage over the city. The neighborhood groups keep their tight grip on who can do what on their turf. The current restaurant and bar owners even get to keep the value of their licenses up. And McDermott, Quilty & Miller continues to be the go-to player in the liquor license game.

It’s enough to drive anyone to drink.