It’s a restaurant on paper but a bar in practice. And the popular Pirates Alley Café in the French Quarter could shut down entirely, should city officials deny its push to operate in the same way it has for two decades.
The business, though officially designated as a restaurant, has long been on the boozier side of a state requirement that more than half of a restaurant’s revenue must come from sales of food and nonalcoholic drinks. After years of lagging food sales, it instead has styled itself as a bar and absinthe house.
But after state investigators audited the business in 2013 and found far more alcohol sales than food sales — and saw one cashier ringing up alcohol sales as food on the register — the state Alcohol and Tobacco Control Board told the owners to apply to operate as a bar, not a restaurant.
That agency said it would issue a state bar license if the owners first obtained a permit from the city to operate as a bar, owner Tony Seville said.
Seville and co-owner Thais Solano have since instructed their employees to properly record all sales. They also have asked the city for a designation that would let Pirates Alley legally focus on drinks, not food.
Director of Safety and Permits Jared Munster denied their request last month. The Board of Zoning Adjustments, a seven-member panel that can overturn that denial, will consider the matter June 13. A second denial would mean no state liquor license and a June 15 shutdown, Seville said.
He said that would be a loss to the French Quarter because the pirate-themed bar, nestled in the historic alley between St. Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo, is a big tourist attraction.
The bar is on the former site of the Spanish colonial prison, or calabozo, that was demolished in 1837 to make way for the Creole House, the building that is there today.
“When our lights go out, it’s just another dark alley in New Orleans,” Seville said.
Munster denied their request, in part, because the bar had not provided his office with documentation showing that its alcohol sales outpaced food sales over a sustained period of time. Pirates Alley’s accountant has since submitted a letter showing that 76 percent of sales over the past decade were for liquor; only 23 percent were for food.
The owners also submitted the state’s investigation, which found that Pirates Alley purchased more than $3,500 worth of food in October 2012 but claimed to sell more than $29,300 in food that month. In June 2013, the state auditor said, Seville bought more than $1,600 in food but claimed to sell more than $17,000. In May 2014, when an auditor dressed in plainclothes visited the bar again, he did not observe any food sales and found that the cashier was ringing up items correctly.
Pirates Alley has many supporters as a bar.
It has been a stop on Gray Line Tours’ daily “Cocktail Tour” for years, and it is “what guests to New Orleans imagine when visiting the French Quarter,” Gray Line director Jim Fewell wrote in a letter of support for the bar.
An online petition created Sunday that urges the zoning board to deem the restaurant a bar has gathered more than 1,000 signatures, while a recently started Facebook group has amassed more than 600 likes.
“Pirates Alley is a valuable asset to not only the tourist community but to the locals and immediate neighbors, both business and resident alike,” the petition reads.
The petition is addressed to “members of the City Council,” though it is the Board of Zoning Adjustments that will hear the appeal. Its decisions may be contested only in Civil District Court.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.