Back in my misspent youth, I frequented a cafÃ© that was licensed to sell liquor only with food.
To comply with the rules, every table would order a single 25-cent Frank's Special - half a piece of buttered bread with a toothpick through it - along with about a million beers.
At the end of the night, Frank's wife Alice would pick up the plate: "Are you going to eat your special, or can we use it again?"
This tells you everything you need to know about Canadians' relationship with their liquor laws.
Larry Hanlon thought he knew about liquor laws.
As owner of Sidney's Peninsula Gallery, he has been staging art show openings for 20 years. The guests swan around with a glass of wine in one hand, a bit of cheese in the other and try to avoid spilling either down their black turtlenecks. "It's got a certain amount of sophistication to it." Wine and art openings go together like NASCAR and deep-fried turkey legs.
To stay on the right side of the angels, Hanlon trots down to the liquor store for an application for a special-occasion licence, trots over to the RCMP to have it processed, then trots back to the liquor store to pay a $25 fee - except for this week, when he got a call from a government inspector who warned him of a long-standing rule he didn't know about: Only invited guests are allowed inside the gallery during a licensed event.
Hanlon figures this is nuts. Not only would he need a doorman to check who was coming in, but said doorman would have to shoo away any uninvited customers. This is a bad business practice in a town that promotes itself as a destination for the worldly traveller. We're supposed to embrace our visitors, not frisk them. "A tourist who steps off a cruise liner and sees a show he thinks is interesting wouldn't be allowed inside." Rather than risk annoying clients, Hanlon decided to forgo the liquor permit.
When the Peninsula Gallery opens its Two Visions show this afternoon, the event will be as dry as a meeting of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. "We will serve a non-alcoholic punch in a champagne flute."
From the point of view of the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch, the restrictions make sense. Private special-occasion licences are for art shows, customer-appreciation nights and other small gatherings. Allowing entry only to invited guests prevents organizations from trying to operate as fully licensed establishments. Authorities don't want Mardi Gras breaking out under the guise of an anniversary party.
But from the art dealers' perspective, the rules are archaic (B.C.'s adjective of choice when describing liquor regulations). Gallery openings aren't frat parties. Art patrons don't go to shows to get hammered (though more than one dealer said he likes to keep a short leash on the artists).
"The amount of alcohol we serve at these events is so minimal, it's hardly worth getting the licence," Hanlon said. Typically, he'll go through a dozen bottles of wine at a soiree. In Victoria proper, where the $25 liquor licence fee is matched by a similar application-processing charge from the city police, a gallery holding one opening each month will pay $600 a year for red tape.
A quick survey of a few local galleries found some were surprised by the invitation-only rule, even though it has been on the books for more than 30 years. Others said they had heard of the requirement, but get around it by sending invitations to everyone on their email lists - not that they then check who walks in the door.
That suggests authorities know this is one of those occasions when the law works best when applied lightly, with enforcement in keeping with the spirit, not the letter, of the regulations.
That's still unfair to inspectors, though; good laws don't force those charged with enforcing them to look the other way. In fact, good laws rely more on voluntary compliance than enforcement. Otherwise, people just get fed up and order the Frank's Special.
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