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Prohibition-Era Law May Prevent Japanese Restaurant from Serving Soju

 Authentic Japanese restaurant Hakata Tonton (left) wants to expand into the space that was formerly occupied by Boots & Saddle (right), but may be stymied by a state law that dates back to Prohibition.
Authentic Japanese restaurant Hakata Tonton (left) wants to expand into the space that was formerly occupied by Boots & Saddle (right), but may be stymied by a state law that dates back to Prohibition.
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Facebook/Hakata Tonton; DNAinfo/Danielle Tcholakian

WEST VILLAGE — An authentic Japanese restaurant in the West Village wants to expand into the space formerly occupied by drag bar Boots & Saddle, but may be stymied by a law that dates back to Prohibition.

Hakata Tonton is a restaurant at 61 Grove St. that prides itself on bringing authentic "meal culture" from the southern region of Japan, with foods that are paired with a distilled beverage called shoju — more like vodka than sake, which is why they need a full liquor license instead of one simply for wine and beer.

Its owners want to expand into the now-vacant space at 76 Christopher St. where Boots & Saddle stood for 40 years before its move over to Seventh Avenue South a few months ago.

They secured a liquor license for their existing space in 2014, after several years without one, and a few weeks ago returned to Community Board 2 to seek support to license the new space as well.

"One of our purposes for running this restaurant is to make this authentic Japanese food culture available to New Yorkers, and drinking shoju with your meal is really part of that experience," explained Tomoko Sater, an English-speaking employee of the restaurant who came to the meeting to translate for the restaurant's Japanese owners.

The board members were skeptical, though, and took issue with the fact that the new space would have a separate entrance and be completely cut off from the Grove Street space, arguing that they would be "essentially two different restaurants with the same kitchen."

They referenced misgivings about supporting Hakata Tonton's application last year.

"I'm not sure why you need [the license] on Grove Street, but why do you need it on Christopher Street as well?" asked CB 2 SLA committee co-chair Robert Ely. "The business lived for many years without an on-premise liquor license. Is that critical for your business?"

"It's a very small part, in terms of the amount of alcohol that's consumed — it's a very small amount," Sater assured him. "But in terms of the meaning of why you have to serve shoju, it's very important."

But it may not just the disapproving community board standing in their way.

Ely and co-chair Carter Booth warned Sater the Boots & Saddle doorway may put Hakata Tonton in violation of the State Liquor Authority's "200-foot rule," which forbids drinking establishments within 200 feet of a church.

Directly across the street from Boots & Saddle is St. John's Lutheran Church. The building dates back to 1821, when it was the Eighth Presbyterian Church in New York City, before becoming a Protestant Episcopal Church in 1842, and ultimately St. John's in 1858.

Over the past several decades, St. John's became known for its liberal leanings and acceptance of gay, lesbian and transgendered people, an ethos explained on a placard in front of the church under the heading, "When we say 'All Are Welcome' we mean it."

Ely warned that if Hakata Tonton came in violation of the 200-foot rule, they won't be able to get their existing license renewed when it expires.

"That's why it's always important to sort this out before, because otherwise you just lose it," Booth explained.

"Believe me, we'd much rather have you in that location than Boots & Saddle," Ely said. "We're very happy they moved onto Seventh Avenue."

The SLA's hands are tied with this rule, a spokesman confirmed, and can make no exceptions for any reason, even if the church gave its OK. It is measured precisely from front door to door or walkway to walkway, with an actual tape measure.

The only way around the rule is if the location has a "grandfathered" existing license, which 67 Christopher St. does have, according to SLA records, because the address has been licensed continuously since 1934, the same year the 200-foot rule was created, after Prohibition ended in 1933.

But Ely insisted that continuous license had been broken after Boots & Saddle moved out and the space was briefly occupied "for a month or two" by a sex shop.

From the outside, there is no sign that a sex shop, or anything other than Boots & Saddle, ever existed inside the space. The laminated signs Boots & Saddle left in the windows notifying people of its relocation remain.

An SLA spokesman said the authority would have to investigate any claims that the license's continuity had been broken, but was under the impression the grandfathered license was still in place.

Hakata Tonton decided to withdraw its application for the time being and consult with a lawyer, Sater told the community board members.