Aug 7, 2023 - Food and Drink

Boston's liquor license system is dragging down its nightlife scene

Illustration of a cocktail glass with a dollar-sign-shaped orange twist

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

One of the biggest hurdles faced by would-be dining and nightlife entrepreneurs is the limited supply of liquor licenses available in the city.

Why it matters: The dearth of licenses is a major contributor to Boston's languid late-night scene.

How it works: The right to serve alcohol in Boston is highly controlled by the city and state.

  • Right now the city's licenses are capped at about 1,400 by state law.

The regulation and cap have sent the price of licenses sky high.

Meanwhile, existing bar and restaurant owners — many who purchased their licenses for hundreds of thousands of dollars — don't want to see their investment devalued by the introduction of new licenses.

The upshot: When a license becomes available, large chains and restaurant groups with deep pockets, mainly operating downtown or in the Seaport, have the advantage. It's much tougher for smaller operators in less profitable neighborhoods to compete.

The latest: The Boston City Council and Mayor Michelle Wu want to issue five new non-transferable licenses per zip code in Dorchester, Hyde Park, Mattapan, Roxbury, Roslindale and East Boston each year to boost economic development in those traditionally underserved neighborhoods.

  • The problem — and it's a big one — is that any change to the city's liquor license scheme needs the approval of the Legislature.

How we got here: The state took control of Boston's liquor licensing in the 1930s after Prohibition on the belief that the mostly Irish city leaders wouldn't be judicial in establishing new bars.

What's next: City officials sent their petition to state lawmakers in April. No hearing has been scheduled for it yet.

  • If State House leaders don't agree to push the bill forward after their August break, there's little Wu or the Council can do to expand licenses.

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