Thursday's 1 p.m. docket for the regular meeting of Baltimore's Board of Liquor License Commissioners contained a who's who of venerable Inner Harbor restaurants, including one that has occupied the same spot since the waterfront became a tourist attraction in the early 1980s.
The board's 3 p.m. docket contained a who's who of venerable strip clubs on The Block, one with a liquor license that dates to at least 1950, and others that have occupied the same spots on East Baltimore Street under one name or another on the famed burlesque strip that dates back to the Roaring '20s.
Owners, license holders and lawyers for all of the establishments - the ones where smart attire is appreciated if not encouraged and the ones where attire is meant to be shed - came before the board to answer the same allegation: that their bartenders sold alcohol to underage police cadets.
The liquor board chairman, Stephan Fogleman, said that the groups ending up on the docket on the same day "was pure happenstance," but it offered an entertaining glimpse into two contrasting worlds just a few blocks apart at a time when city leaders are trying to get bar owners to take more responsibility, and downtown crime and unruly teens are at the top of the agenda.
Both groups want to attract patrons to a safe environment, but while the Inner Harbor promotes family fare, The Block thrives by pushing legal and moral limits, realizing that without a certain sense of danger and the forbidden, the adult entertainment district would be, well, just another entertainment district.
The harbor restaurants were each cited for single infractions involving bottles of Miller Lite, Coors Light and Heineken beer (though in one case, a cadet went all out and ordered a Blue Moon on tap).
The stings on The Block started the same way but twice led to more serious charges of prostitution; another case led to a bartender counting money from marijuana sales (police said they found pot on a table in the manager's office).
Fogleman said that he's sensitive to complaints that the board targets small businesses and that conducting stings at "high-profile" places at the harbor "obviously clears that up" and sends a stern message that underage drinking will not be tolerated.
He said that more than half the Inner Harbor restaurants targeted March 31 sold alcohol to underage cadets, while only 30 percent did so on The Block.
Harbor restaurants cited - Phillips, J. Paul's and Tir Na Nog - all brought attorneys to argue their cases, along with the license holders, managers and, in one case, the chief bartender. The lawyer for Phillips, a Baltimore institution that hadn't previously been cited for such a transgression in its 28 years at Harborplace, introduced herself as the "in-house counsel."
Block bars were, for the most part, represented by the same attorney, though the licensee of the Dynasty Lounge chose to represent himself and, dressed in torn jeans and untucked shirt, repeatedly and unsuccessfully argued that he couldn't possibly be responsible for a private discussion between the undercover cop and a dancer named "Wet," who police said wanted $250 in exchange for sex in a back room.
Representatives of the three Harborplace restaurants brought binders full of corporate policies for carding people who look under the age of 35, apologized for mistakenly serving the 19- and 20-year-old cadets beer, discussed remedial training, told of firing a bartender and pleaded guilty to the charges.
Representatives of the four Block bars - the Dynasty (also known as the Mouse Trap), the Plaza, the Circus Bar and the Jewel Box - fumbled to decide who would stand before the board, sometimes mixing up their own confusing cross-ownership ties, and all pleaded not guilty to most of the charges. (One owner acknowledged selling a cadet a beer, and the Jewel Box escaped a prostitution charge when the city officer didn't show up to testify.)
Lawyers for the restaurants talked about their history, their importance to the city, their relatively clean records (Tir Na Nog was cited for serving an underage cadet last year, earning it a hefty fine in this latest case), but all threw themselves on the mercy of the board.
"March 31 was a bad day for the harbor," said Tir Na Nog's attorney, Edward J. Gillis, who told the board that the establishment "is one of the high-end destination places at Baltimore's Harborplace. It serves high-quality food and high-quality beverages. It's not a place where you'd find underage consumers. In fact, you can find beer for $8 a bottle. This is a restaurant that Baltimore should be proud of."
Charles Milland, a lawyer for three Block bars (where beer also can be pricey, but it comes with other attractions), offered up no such sweeping statements about the history of the gaudy strip but did note that Plaza owners fired "the manager, the doorman, the bartenders, everybody" after getting hit with the latest citation.
He eschewed apologies and instead argued that one cadet obscured his face with a hood that made it impossible for the doorman or bartender to notice that he was underage.
The board fined The Block bars Dynasty and the Plaza $3,500 and the Circus $500, and Harbor restaurants Tir Na Nog $750, J. Paul's $650 and Phillips $225.
Of course, the allegations against some of the bars on The Block were far more serious. Steven Delawder, a licensee at the Dynasty, questioned a conversation that a cop said he had had with a dancer.
"If that conversation was as stated, I can't be held responsible for another human being speaking," Delawder told the board. "If she was talking about a fictional room for a fictional act, there is no such act going on in my establishment. ... There is no back room."
For the Inner Harbor establishments, the sting was a reminder and a warning - they're important to the city, but they aren't immune from the law, and they are as responsible as anyone else for helping keep the downtown safe and free of underage boozers.
For The Block, the outcome of the sting seemed a foregone conclusion, the fines a cost of doing business. Too bad, because several strip club owners had recently told me that they would support creating an adult zone to keep the underage out.
All of the establishments can start by keeping the underage out of their bars.