Top Shelf Martinis on Main reconfigured its outdoor seating area on Aug. 17, resolving a monthslong dispute and becoming the first non-Seattle bar in the state to occupy a “detached” patio.
The modification, a result of conflicting requirements between the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board and the city of Vancouver, turned out to be a testament to flexibility, said owner Daren Morgan — and it shows that communication is key when working with two different sets of rulebooks.
“They very seldom align. This is a huge win for everybody,” Morgan said. “I’m extremely happy that we’re finally able to come up with something that works.”
Formerly, Top Shelf’s enclosed patio sat immediately outside the door facing Main Street, cutting off the sidewalk. The location satisfied state requirements that forbade customers from walking across a public sidewalk to reach the patio, but the city received complaints from pedestrians that the railed-off rectangle made it difficult to navigate the corner of Main and West Sixth streets.
In April, city officials told Morgan that the bolted-down patio needed to be redesigned. At that point, Morgan had spent more than $10,000 on the project and was frustrated at the city for walking back the permits it had already issued to his business.
Enter Tommy Renner, Vancouver’s head of the Sidewalk Program.
“Tommy actually went above and beyond, he went and got hold of the liquor board,” Morgan said.
Renner, Morgan and the state regulators negotiated and decided to revert to Morgan’s initial proposal. That leaves the sidewalk unblocked but requires staff and patrons to walk a few feet across a public space to reach the patio.
Renner did not return The Columbian’s request for comment.
Outside of a pilot program being tested in Seattle, Top Shelf is the only alcohol-serving establishment in Washington that’s been given permission to serve customers in a detached outdoor space.
“This is the very first. We were able to set a precedent for the entire state,” Morgan said.
The new configuration also uses a pre-existing decorative brick wall, owned by the city, as one of the patio’s boundaries. The liquor board approved the use of the wall as the boundary on two sides of the patio, even though it’s a few inches shorter than the statutory 42 inches.
Spokesman Mikhail Carpenter said that last year, the board amended its regulations to create exemptions to the outdoor service rules for “Sidewalk Cafes.”
“The changes were made after a pilot program and at the request of Seattle and Spokane, who found the permanent barrier requirement to be unworkable in some situations,” Carpenter said.
According to Morgan, Top Shelf is the first location outside the pilot that waived both the 42-inch barrier and the contiguous rule.
“There’s actually two precedents that got set out of this deal,” Morgan said.
Joel Ortega, Top Shelf’s kitchen manager and bartender, said he’s pleasantly surprised that what started as a headache for the restaurant ended as a win-win.
The patio’s new dimensions added customer capacity, too — an additional 84 square feet.
“We thought we were going to get kind of shafted from the deal, but I guess everyone kind of got together and worked it out,” Ortega said at the bar Monday afternoon, preparing for the after-work rush.
An easier path
The city has a vested interest in ensuring that outdoor seating remains a doable venture for bars and restaurants, said Steve Becker, executive director of Vancouver’s Downtown Association.
Nothing beckons, he said, like an empty table and chair inviting patrons to sit outdoors on a Friday evening.
“The mission of Vancouver’s Downtown Association is to activate sidewalks, is to do what we can to make sure downtown Vancouver is an inviting, welcoming place,” Becker said.
It hasn’t always been this way, he added. When Interstate 205 opened in 1983 — yanking the heart of Vancouver to the east, along with Vancouver Mall in 1977 — businesses in historic downtown took a heavy blow.
“People are tired of hearing me say this, but I am of a generation that remembers when downtown Vancouver died,” Becker said.
The southern end of Main Street started reviving around 10 years ago, Becker said. Five years ago, it exploded.
Encouraging business owners to set up outdoor seating areas will keep downtown Vancouver thriving, he urged.
“Whether it’s at Main Event, or Little Conejo, or Pacific House at the corner of Ninth and Main,” Becker said, “there really has been a transformation. I think some of it has to do with, there is another group of people who are working downtown. Employers like DiscoverOrg have young technology workers who are interested in unique dining experiences, (and in) textures you can only get in a historic downtown.”
Top Shelf may have only just reconfigured its patio, but it’s already opened the door for other downtown businesses to take advantage of more lax restrictions on outdoor seating and alcohol.
Take Boomerang Bistro, the nonprofit coffeehouse at 808 Main St. that held a soft opening last weekend after its remodel.
The airy coffeehouse recently received its liquor license, and once the scaffolding comes down outside its facade — hopefully by next week, according to Executive Director Jill Meyer — then the sidewalk seating will open to customers, including those imbibing.
The outdoor space won’t be blocked with a railing, Meyer added. Renner’s name came up again, as he reportedly pushed the liquor control agent to allow the exception to apply to Boomerang, she said.
“It was brand new information to him, but Tommy had heard of it,” Meyer laughed.
For Top Shelf Martini and for Morgan, the looser regulations are a welcome development, especially in a downtown region seeing such a rapid transformation in its bar and restaurant scene.
“I spent the last year playing politics, trying to come up with a configuration to please everybody,” Morgan said. “The city has gone above and beyond to work on this.”