A Williamsburg community board approved a liquor license for a surprisingly controversial upscale wine bar that an angry group of residents has bitterly fought on the grounds that the party neighborhood is oversaturated with watering holes — even though the opponents were silent when 19 other bars were rubber-stamped for the same licenses.
On Wednesday night, Community Board 1 voted 17–14 to recommend a liquor license for Custom American Wine Bar — the Driggs Avenue tapas bar that has become the focus of neighborhood ire.
“Finally, experienced operators are coming to the neighborhood,” said board member Mieszko Kalita, who chaired a raucous public safety committee meeting last Thursday where dozen opponents clashed with 30 supporters.
“We want to welcome them,” he added. “With a bar like this, our streets are alive and not just closed gates. These owners have six liquor licenses in Manhattan without any complaints.”
Opponents — including actor Danny Hoch — persisted, saying that the bar will attract binge drinkers, public urinators and gang violence, but co-owner Stefan Mailvaganam, who also co-owns Bar Carrera, a tapas bar in Manhattan, brought in supporters who questioned the opponents’ motives last week.
“Custom American Wine Bar will attract the opposite of gangs and frat boys,” said Yann de Rochefort, who owns Boqueria tapas bar in Manhattan. “The community board should encourage places like Stefan’s.”
The Public Safety Committee did not fully agree on Thursday, sending a mixed message in the form of a tie vote — the only non-approval of a very long night of rubber-stamping liquor license applications. That brought the liquor license request to the full community board on Wednesday night. The approval was conditioned on the bar closing at midnight on weekdays and at 2 am on weekends.
The saga to get a license has consumed four months and $20,000, said Mailvaganam and his co-owner Dan Lathroum, who particularly objected to opponents’ claim that “outsiders” have ruined Williamsburg because he lives on N. Fourth Street, not far from his proposed bar.
But on Wednesday, Mailvaganam was relieved.
“The most important thing right now is to bring everyone in the community back together,” he said. “There is no ill will between us, and we want to demonstrate that this is a restaurant for everyone.”
Even in a party-hardy neighborhood like Williamsburg, liquor license controversies are extremely rare, said Kalita. “This is the first time there has been such a roar,” he said.
It remains unclear what the opponents find objectionable about the wine bar. Last week, opponents would not talk on the record, but they did circulate an unsigned e-mail that began, “The fight against the bars continues.”
“The issue is not whether the bar owners are nice and willing to negotiate with the community, but that there are already five establishments with full liquor licenses within 500 feet [of Custom American Wine Bar],” it said. “We can’t be distracted by the owners’ statements that they want to be a part of our community and improve it! We have the right to chose what constitutes improvement and livability.”
Last Thursday’s hearing was frequently heated, with the owner of the building, Dobrivoye Filipovich, getting tossed after calling a staffer for Councilwoman Diana Reyna “a drug dealer” and branding Wechter a “criminal.”
Later, his son, Greg Filipovich, said that he trusts the wine bar owners and, besides, he needs a stable tenant to fill his empty space.
“My taxes have doubled from $20,000 to $40,000,” he said. “If we can’t get this liquor license then I will have to open a 24-hour bodega. Then, [the neighbors] will really get a crowd of kids hanging around.”