A liquor bill being drafted would require fine dining clubs such as Ruth’s Chris Steak House and the New Yorker to serve less alcohol, or they could become bars where minors are not allowed or restaurants where bartenders must be out of public view.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, said the proposal is still a draft, and he stressed that dining clubs are "one small piece of a much bigger picture" in comprehensive liquor legislation that could be filed as early as next week.
Currently, dining clubs do not share the prohibitions placed on restaurants. For instance, restaurants must erect barriers to hide bartenders and open bottles of alcohol, and they may not have waiting areas where only drinks are served while diners wait for tables.
And unlike bars, minors are allowed into dining clubs as long as an adult accompanies them. To protect minors even more, dining clubs are required to scan driver licenses of anyone who looks younger than age 35.
Under the pending bill, dining clubs "could elect" to remain as they are, said Valentine. but sales quotas would be raised from the current requirement that half of all sales must be food and half alcohol. He said at this point, he’s not sure how high the ratio would go, but more meals would have to be served.
Utah Restaurant Association Chief Executive Melva Sine said Valentine has asked her not to speculate on the bill until the measure has been filed.
"We are concerned that what looks good on paper may not work in the real world," she said. "Our goal is to make sure that whatever ends up in the bill can actually work."
Valentine said he is placing the dining club measure in his liquor bill because both he and SenatePresident Michael Waddoups are concerned that lines have become blurred between bars and restaurants.
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in 2009, Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, summoned state liquor-control officials to the Capitol to find out why restaurants were allowed to mix alcoholic drinks "in a bar setting."
"I am totally convinced that any lay citizen would go in and say, ‘This is a bar,’ " Waddoups said of Chili’s, at 668 E. 400 South in Salt Lake City.
Lawmakers in turn, passed legislation requiring restaurants that opened or moved after January 2010 to erect a barrier or back room for bartenders.
Although existing eateries are exempt, Valentine’s proposal would require dining clubs to erect barriers if owners choose to become a restaurant.
Under current law, some national chains such as the Cheesecake Factory at Fashion place Mall in Murray would have to change their floor plans in order to open a new restaurant in Utah. Sine, with the Restaurant Association, said national chains are reluctant to change their business models and brands their customers have come to expect.
Restrictions already in place have proven a hardship for some local businesses as well.
last fall, when the Shabu restaurant in Park City lost its lease at 333 Main St., it was no longer considered an existing restaurant. Even though it had moved only a few doors down to 442 Main St., Shabu was required to build barriers to hide drinks and bartenders.
"Requiring new restaurants to build barriers puts them at a disadvantage when competing with existing restaurants," Shabu co-owner Kevin Valaika had said. "Once we lost our lease, we lost all our privileges of being an existing restaurant."
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