There was a moment at the Birmingham City Commission meeting Monday night when it looked like the approval of Social, an applicant for a 2012 bistro license, was in jeopardy.
Ultimately, the tapas-style restaurant — which plans to open at 225 E. Maple Rd. — received a unanimous vote of approval from a panel of five commissioners (Commissioners Stuart Sherman and Scott Moore were absent), but it was only after Social's owner and operator, Chef Zack Sklar, promised one thing: to change the name.
Social was one of two bistro applicants to come before the City Commission on Monday night; Market, a Mediterrean restaurant to be owned by Luxe Bar & Grille's Kristin and Joe Bongiovianni at 470 N. Old Woodward Ave., also received approval of its final site plans.
Both applicants were initially screened by the City Commission out of a field of five in October as part of a new bistro approval process the city is testing for 2012 licenses.
Under Birmingham's 2007 bistro ordinance, only two bistro licenses are approved each year. Bistros are defined as having seasonal sidewalk seating, a full-service kitchen and no more than 65 seats inside.
At the time Social first came before the City Commission, four out of seven commissioners said Social was their favorite of the five prospective bistro concepts.
Commissioners debate 'bar' in restaurant name
Social plans to move into the former Tokyo Sushi location and the adjacent empty space on East Maple Road. Sklar, the founder of Cutting Edge Cuisine, plans to renovate the space and adjoining alley with plans for outdoor dining in the alley and on a rooftop deck.
But the problem wasn't with Sklar's plans; it was with his first pick for a name. The bistro originally proposed to call itself Social Kitchen, then changed the name to Social Kitchen and Bar during the Planning Board stage.
Sklar said he added "and Bar" to the name in order to help customers and passers-by associate the establishment as a restaurant. He told commissioners that when he told people about Social Kitchen, they weren't sure what it meant.
"Adding 'bar' makes the restaurant name make sense," Sklar said. Social has plans for a bar with 10 seats, comparable with other bistros around town.
However, Commissioner Rackeline Hoff pointed out that the intent of the city's bistro ordinance was to encourage Birmingham's prospective restaurateurs to focus on food, not alcohol. She mentioned that other bistros have taken "bar" out of their name, including the now-defunct Cole Street Kitchen and Bar. Luxe Bar & Grille, while still keeping "bar" in its name, took the word off its North Old Woodward storefront when it opened in 2010.
While city commissioners typically don't dictate details such as a business's name, since a special land use permit is required for all bistros — and commissioners hold approval power of all such permits — commissioners can attach conditions to special land use permit approvals, Planning Director Jana Ecker said.
Sklar jumped in during commissioner discussion, insisting that he didn't want the name to become a deal breaker.
"This project is more important to me than the word 'bar' is to me," Sklar said.
Commissioners Tom McDaniel and Gordon Rinschler expressed their distaste at the conversation over the name, noting they cared more about the overall project than the name.
"We put the petitioner in a position where he had to agree with us," Rinschler said. "It's a shame that we got in a nit over such a little issue."
Mayor Mark Nickita agreed. While admitting that it's the city's responsibilty to preserve the intent of the original ordinance, Nickita said the City Commission shouldn't dictate how restaurateurs run their businesses.
"I don't want to hold you back from creativity and promoting yourself," he said.