The New Puritainism: The Politics of Alcohol in DC

Liquor License Locations By Type

Since 2001, the regulation of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the District has been controlled by the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, a seven-member regulatory body of city government. ABRA issues licenses to all types of sellers of alcohol in the city, monitors compliance with city law, and has the power to issue new regulations related to the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. According to statistics on their website ABRA keeps up a brisk business: in fiscal year 2006 they issued 1,254 licenses and permits to sell alcohol and conducted 2,255 inspections.

The agency’s meetings are also the primary battleground between sellers of alcohol and the opponents of alcohol sales. Ranging from Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, Condo Associations, churches, and other citizen groups (in most cases property owners), these group’s complaints can include noisy bars, loitering, liquor stores selling drug paraphernalia, and a host of others. After receiving complaints ABRA encourages the complainants and the licensee to attempt to negotiate detailed Cooperative Agreements which become legally enforceable conditions of the liquor license. These agreements can contain passages requiring no loitering signs, instructing the liquor store to call police if they see people loitering, restrictions on pay telephones, restricting the percentage of window space that can be covered by advertisements, and even passages regarding “upgrading of merchandise” requiring the selling of “quality wines in corked bottles … milk, juice, fresh bakery bread and bagels …”

In response to vigorous neighborhood activism opposing virtually all types of alcohol sale ABRA has issued complete moratoriums for new licenses in five zones in the city including Adams Morgan, Georgetown, Glover Park, and two in Dupont Circle. In these areas no new licenses can be issued, effectively placing a cap on the number and type of bars, restaurants, and clubs able to sell alcohol. Think about this the next time you find yourself in an overcrowded Adams Morgan, Georgetown, or Dupont Circle bar.

In order to better understand the geography of alcohol in the city I have created a series of maps illustrating the locations and types of liquor licenses in the city utilizing city GIS data. These maps show most bars and restaurants in the city are clustered downtown and on major thoroughfares in upper northwest, and northeast and southeast washington have very few restaurants with liquor licenses. I have also made a map for the Shaw/Logan Circle neighborhood. In addition to the maps visible here, I created this map of central DC. If anyone is curious what other neighborhoods look like in more detail please leave a comment and I will consider creating more maps.

Restaurants Serving AlcoholLicense Locations - Shaw

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Nice analysis. The beauty of these complete moratoriums is they significantly raise the value of licensed establishments.

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  3. It almost looks like retail establishments are planned, they seem so evenly distributed. Is that just economics, or is there a relevant zoning regulation?

  4. Hi Techne. The short answer is no, there is no zoning specifically for bars and restaurants. However, there is zoning for “commercial” so all business must be in a commercial zone. The long answer is that when more specific zoning was adopted in the District in the 20th century it tended to ossify existing commercial corridors, although re-zoning is possible for individual properites, and there are plenty of examples of restaurants in the middle of residential neighborhoods …

  5. Also from an economic standpoint you would want to locate your restaurant either in a place where you would have the least direct competition or in a place where people to travel to with the express purpose of choosing among many options.

  6. Nice. I did a nongraphic analysis like this in 2002 comparing Georgetown to H Street and Capitol Hill. I gotta learn how to do GIS!!!!!!!!!!!

    Anyway, restaurant moratoria are rare. Maybe they do increase the value of a restaurant, because otherwise the cost of a liquor license is minimal.

    The problem with places like H Street is that there are many more establishments per capita compared to other areas.

    As it is these places aren’t making much money, which is why some of the places are closing.

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