CITY HALL — A city commissioner is set to rule on Bottled Blonde's liquor license after lawyers made closing arguments Tuesday that could decide the bar's fate.
The city's liquor commissioner will make a recommendation on Bottled Blonde's liquor license in about two months now that the bar's trial is over, said Lilia Chacon, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
The ruling will come after lawyers for both the city and Bottled Blonde made their final arguments Tuesday at City Hall.
Bottled Blonde, a popular yet polarizing bar at 504 N. Wells St., could lose its liquor license over allegations it is violating its restaurant liquor license intended for businesses that primarily sell food instead of drinks.
The threat prompted Bottled Blonde to open its books to the public Tuesday. The bar produced a balance sheet during the trial showing that it grossed more than $9 million from March 2016 through February, with a third of sales coming from food, 49 percent from drinks and 18 percent from "table service fees" the bar says are linked to reserving tables at Bottle Blond.
But city lawyers were skeptical and charged that the fees were tied to liquor bottle service, meaning the bar violated an agreement with the city requiring less than half of Bottled Blonde's sales come from alcohol.
Nicholas Ftikas, Bottled Blonde's lawyer, said the city built its case on circumstantial evidence that doesn't prove Bottled Blonde is violating the business plan hashed out with city officials last year.
The city's witnesses point to vomit and instances of public urination in their neighborhood, but can't prove it was produced by a Bottled Blonde customer, Ftikas said. The bar has yet to be charged with harboring any criminal activity or other conduct that in the past has led to bars being shut down.
"The one thing we can all agree with is revocation is the most severe form of punishment the city can impose on a licensee," Ftikas said. "In this case the city has fallen well short of that burden" of proof.
Rachel Berger, a lawyer for the city, cast doubt on how Bottled Blonde calculated and subdivided its revenue figures after cross-examining the bar's accountant, saying the true extent of alcohol sales were hidden. She said the bar has not honored its agreement with the city to monitor the long lines it draws late at night, or to clean up its surroundings.
Bottled Blonde's lawyers "tried to claim there is no history of bad behavior [but] that’s all we have here," Berger said. "This is a licensee that's unfit to keep their license."
Some River North neighbors protested Bottled Blonde's arrival to the city before it even opened two years ago at 504 N. Wells St. The neighbors — who also filed noise complaints against the SushiSamba Rio club that preceded Bottled Blonde — circulated a petition likening the Arizona-based chain to a "rowdy Hooter's" that would bring trouble to their street.
"We don't have nightclubs, per se, along the Wells Street corridor," petitioner David Shiba told DNAinfo in 2015. "It's a different situation" from the rest of River North.
Sean Conlon, who owns the bar's building, responded by calling Bottled Blonde a "sophisticated bar in a very sophisticated neighborhood."
Bottled Blonde agreed to change its business following disciplinary hearings last year at City Hall, but landed back in the city's crosshairs this summer after neighbors complained that not much had changed.
The bar also was widely criticized this year for posting an extensive, allegedly racist dress code outside its front door.
Neighbors and 42nd Ward Ald. Brendan Reilly, whose ward includes Bottled Blonde, have alleged since it opened that the bar was violating its liquor license because it focused its business on late-night drinks instead of food. The city issues different liquor licenses to taverns and restaurants, and Reilly has since moved to discontinue new tavern licenses throughout much of River North.
Bottled Blonde's trial this year at City Hall took an interesting turn last month when the bar admitted Tim Fitzgerald, its former attorney, was jailed in Michigan on drug charges. A judge was set to rule on Bottled Blonde in September, but granted the bar an extension after it hired Ftikas and his firm.
Bob Nolan, the hearing officer who has presided over Bottled Blonde's trial, said after closing arguments that the case now simply "goes from me to somebody else," not indicating how he felt on the matter.