Even though there were three applicants vying for only two bistro licenses, the discussion at the Birmingham City Commission meeting Monday went relatively smoothly.
Meanwhile, a third applicant, Crush, was passed over for a bistro license though most city commissioners were confident the proposed wine-themed restaurant had a better chance of approval with a different kind of liquor license.
Under the city's 2007 bistro ordinance, Birmingham only approves two new bistro licenses per year. Bistros are defined as having seasonal sidewalk seating, a full-service kitchen and no more than 65 seats inside and 10 seats at the bar.
This is the second year for Birmingham's new bistro-approval process, which includes an initial pre-screening by the City Commission in the fall, a review by the Birmingham Planning Board before then returning to the commission for final approval.
This was the second year Birmingham Sushi and What Crepe? asked for a bistro license and throughout the approval process, city commissioners and planning board members were happy with both plans.
In recent past, bistro licenses have been typically awarded to new restaurants, with approval dependent on everything from the proposed location to what the bistro would bring to Birmingham.
Since 2007, bistro licenses have been given to 11 new restaurants and four existing restaurants, all in 2007: Elie's Mediterranean Grill, Salvatore Scallopini, Cosi and Papa Joe's (which is currently finishing up work at its second-story bistro, Bistro Joe's, set to open in mid-March).
Bistro licenses will expand existing menus, create additional outdoor seating
So what will be different about the Birmingham Sushi and the French-inspired What Crepe? now that they have bistro licenses?
The biggest change is alcohol on the menu. Birmngham Sushi, the Asian fusion spot that has been open for three years now, has plans to serve Asian-inspired drinks, including sake, plum wine and Asian beers. Though the restaurant does have a sushi bar, the drinks would be prepared in the kitchen and delivered to diners by the waitstaff.
At What Crepe?, open since 2011, owner Paul Jenkins said he plans on selling "eclectic" French wines, beers and hand-crafted cocktails. What Crepe?'s Royal Oak location already sells alcohol and in October, Jenkins told the commission than 20 percent of his business there comes from drinks alone.
Other big changes coming with the bistro license: more outdoor dining. The biggest addition will be a new outdoor dining deck in front of What Crepe?, adding a total of 23 seats. What Crepe? will also be renovating its interior to add a bar that seats eight.
The new dining deck will be similar to the ones used by Dick O'Dow's and Elie's in the spring and summer months. At first, commissioners were concerned that the addition of a dining platform on that stretch of North Old Woodward would take away parking spots. "That's a very active block, with a lot of people outside," City Commisisoner Rackeline Hoff said.
Outdoor dining, however, is nothing new for Birmingham Sushi. The restaurant first recieved approval for an outdoor dining platform in 2009.
Crush to return in two weeks for economic development license
While city commissioners agreed that Birmingham Sushi and What Crepe? deserved the 2013 bistro licenses, many were unsure whether the third applicant, Crush, should even be a bistro.
Crush owners have also been ambivalent on that fact in recent weeks. In late January, after they had already received the Planning Board's recommendation as a bistro, Crush asked the Planning Board to recommend them for an economic development license as well.
An economic development license is another less expensive form of a Class C liquor license that requires restaurants to either make a significant investment or increase the value of a property along Woodward.
With plans to build a whole new restaraurant underneath the 555 Building, which straddles South Old Woodward and Woodward Avenue, Crush developers said the restrictions of the bistro ordinance — specifically the seat count — were "dictating" the design and use of their building.
Original plans included two second-story dining terraces overlooking South Old Woodward and Woodward. With a bistro ordinance, Crush would be limited to using only one of those terraces. With an economic development license, on the other hand, Crush could open with up to 236 seats indoors and on both terraces.
Though Crush was voted down as a bistro, commissioners assured developers Crush "wasn't a done deal." Many commissioners said they liked the idea of Crush with an economic development license, though noted there is a need for additional discussion on what they expect from that kind of liquor license.
The only Birmingham restaurant with an economic development license was the now-closed Zazios. Crush and its request for a similar license returns to the City Commission in two weeks.