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Smokecraft in Clarendon feeling heat from county threat to revoke live entertainment permit

Smokecraft BBQ awards (courtesy photo)

A barbecue joint in Clarendon may have its occasional parties go up in smoke.

Arlington County says Smokecraft Modern Barbecue at 1051 N. Highland Street could lose its live entertainment permit because it does not comply with a local initiative requiring restaurants and bars to meet certain alcohol safety standards.

At issue: Since November, Clarendon venues with live entertainment permits need to comply with the Arlington Restaurant Initiative (ARI). One requirement is that establishments have certain written policies and procedures, which the award-winning, list-topping Smokecraft — which opened in 2020 — does not have.

The restaurant and its attorneys say they believe such written policies could make the restaurant vulnerable to litigation, meaning an increase in insurance costs of upwards of $10,000 a year.

“We are a safe establishment. We have been a safe establishment. We continue to plan to do so. Adopting these specific written policies isn’t going to change our commitment,” owner and pitmaster Andrew Darneille told the Board last night (Tuesday).

Further, he said, the live entertainment permit is not actively in use, all alcohol-serving staff are trained in how to serve safely, the restaurant has a “perfect alcohol safety record,” and alcohol only comprises 15% of sales.

Without compliance, the Arlington County Board says it will eventually revoke the live entertainment permit. In May, the county allowed Smokecraft to keep the permit and revisit the issue in a month while the parties cook up a solution.

Last night, the Board was poised to revoke the permit but instead voted to punt on the issue for one more month because negotiations are headed in the right direction.

Still, the patience of Board members appears to be wearing thin. Some seemed annoyed the issue had gotten to this point, where other restaurants found ways to make it work.

“I think you can get there without realizing the apocalypse your representatives see,” Board Chair Christian Dorsey said. “For my purposes, each month that we continue in this dance is another month where you continue to enjoy a permit without adhering to ARI standards — a luxury that the other establishments haven’t had.”

Dorsey said Smokecraft has the flexibility to write policies that meet a “minimal bar for compliance” and work for the business.

“One of the beauties of this is that the policies are not proscriptive — they’re illustrative,” Dorsey said. “It’s not like it’s going to require you to upend your operations.”

In response to the argument that Smokecraft should be able to follow the lead of other businesses, Darneille said that is an unfair argument.

“I recognize 50 other restaurants signed onto this but I can’t speak to why they made decisions to do what they’ve done,” he continued. “We’ve raised a concern here that’s valid for us. We are working to try and resolve that concern.”

He shifted blame to the county for not promptly engaging with the restaurant when these concerns first were raised. Then, after a meeting last month, he said it took two weeks to receive responses from the county.

County Board members did not address this point. ARLnow has previously reported on restaurateurs and other business owners having trouble reaching staff in a timely manner.

The Arlington Restaurant Initiative started as a voluntary program aimed at making the county a safer place to enjoy a night out. Arlington County Police Department provides free training in alcohol safety to restaurant staff and if someone gets out of hand, they could be barred entry from all participating restaurants.

In Clarendon, which had a reputation for getting sloppy at night, county staff, the County Board, law enforcement and some participants credit ARI for making nightlife in the neighborhood classier.

“Clarendon was a very different place than before ARI,” Board member Takis Karantonis said, adding that today there is a “critical mass of restaurateurs and entrepreneurs who contribute to Clarendon being such a great place, partly because of ARI.”

The success led the county to make these optional standards a requirement for Clarendon nightlife spots. In a letter to the County Board responding to this issue, the Arlington Chamber of Commerce supports keeping this program optional.

“While ARI has good intentions, we find that its transformation into a mandate, without consultation or adjustments in standards to reflect that, does not reflect best government practices,” Chamber of Commerce CEO Kate Bates wrote.

Outside of Clarendon, the now-closed Purple Lounge on Columbia Pike had its live entertainment permit revoked for non-compliance with ARI. The lounge gained local notoriety for a host of alcohol and safety violations, calls to police and a shooting outside.

Another allegedly rowdy spot, the Bowlero in Crystal City, got on track through compliance with ARI.

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