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All This for a Pint O' Beer


By Daniel B. Wroblewski


All they wanted to do was make eating English-style pizza more fun. They just wanted to let customers enjoy their meals with a frosty mug of beer or a sparkling glass of wine. That's pretty hospitable, nothing anyone could object to.

But the restaurant's three year quest for a liquor license has been a sobering experience--confronting Cambridge's sticky web of city politics, favoritism, and vacillating policy.

Community groups, particularly the Harvard Square Defense Fund, have crusaded against Ruggles's beer and wine license, claiming that it does not serve "a public need" and insinuating that the granting of this single license would lead to crime, over-crowding and chaos.

Ruggles has had to deal with the Cambridge License Commission, whose ban on new liquor licenses in Harvard Square was first unofficial, then unwritten, and now just inconsistent.

It has been a game of politics and double-standards for Ruggles. After three years of bureaucracy and politics, the restaurant still cannot serve beer. Meanwhile, owners of the pizzeria have seen three other establishments receive all-alcohol licenses.

The latest Ruggles application was denied earlier this month because it was filed two years late, after an unwritten ban was established in 1983 on new liquor licenses in Harvard Square, according to Cambridge License Commission Chairman James T. McDavitt.

Ruggles first applied to the commission three years ago, before the ban supposedly was created.

In 1982, Ruggles applied for a beer and wine license from Cambridge and was denied partially because the commission thought there were enough liquor serving establishments and partly because the restaurant was within 500 feet of a church. Shortly thereafter, in a suit brought by the Harvard Square restaurant Grendel's, the Supreme Court held that churches and schools could not have absolute veto power over liquor licenses for nearby establishments. So the commission reheard Ruggles' case in early 1983. But again Ruggles was denied.

The restaurant appealed the decision to the Massachussets Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC), the state agency which administers the state liquor laws and ultimately approves every license given in the state. The ABCC upheld Cambridge's denial saying it was the city's perogative to make such decisions.

But it also said that Cambridge didn't know what it was doing. "It must be noted that had we heard this matter originally, we would have granted the license. A restaurant license of this type is typically an adjunct to the service of food; and that situation usually does not present the type of problems other types of pouring spots would," went the ABCC ruling. "Consequently, we hope the [Cambridge] Board will reconsider its decision and grant the license," the ABCC added. The Cambridge License Commission did reconsider its ruling.

So back went Ruggles to the Cambridge License Commission, and once again the commission, kowtowing to pressure from community groups, dismissed Ruggles's bid to serve a little refreshment.

Ruggles perservered, went to county court and won. The Middlesex Superior Court ruled that the city's denial of the Ruggles license was "unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious, and otherwise without legally sufficient basis." The court also ordered Cambridge to consider the Ruggles application "without regard to the number of other the Harvard Square area."

But ale was not meant to flow at Ruggles yet. The decision was overturned on a technicality. A Massachusetts appeals court ruled that the restaurant should have appealed the latest Cambridge denial to the ABCC before it took its plight to the courts. So Ruggles had to start all over again.

Yet while Ruggles' odyssey took place, the commission forgot its intransigience toward granting new liquor licenses. Since Ruggles was first denied, the commission has given three licenses--to the Charles Square Hotel, to Grendel's Den, and most recently the Wursthaus license, allowing that restaurant to serve liquor on the sidewalk.

But when Ruggles came back to the commission on September 10, the commissioners remebered suddenly how much they disliked granting new liquor licenses. McDavitt's recommendation to deny Ruggles a license passed in less than 60 seconds with no debate.

Minutes later, the commission demonstrated its inconsistency once again. This time they allowed a restaurant to serve drinks to people on the sidewalk.

At that hearing the commission heard a petition to extend Wurthaus' liquor license allowing it to serve liquor at its sidewalk tables. Trying to compromise with strong community opposition, McDavitt suggested that Wursthaus owner Frank Cardullo be permitted to serve liquor at his outdoor tables from Thursday to Sunday. This time McDavitt's fellow commissioners came to Cardullo's support.

Police Chief Anthony G. Paolillo, who doubles as a license commissioner, insisted that the influential owner of the Wursthaus be allowed to serve liquor seven days a week. "The placing of tables and flowers at that location has significantly improved the area in regard to unfavorables," Paolillo said. If Paolillo was referring to the punks that hang out in the Square, he should tell us where he thinks they have gone.

Ruggles is one of those cases that has slipped through the cracks. McDavitt is trying to establish a definitive policy on liquor licenses in the city.

McDavitt became chairman five months ago to begin dealing with frantic neighborhood organization calling for a city-wide ban on liquor licenses. He has listened to businessmen, city officials, and citizens condescendingly trying to teach him about city politics. And with all the hysteria over liquor in Cambridge and previous indiscriminate enforcement, he has his work cut out for him.

In trying to compromise over the Wursthaus issue, McDavitt tried to stay above politics, and decide the case not by some arbitrary standard but by what made sense. Unfortunately, his colleagues, who have been around the commission longer, did not let him.

With the Ruggles license application, McDavitt used past unofficial policy to avoid having to decide on a difficult and controversial issue. Clearly, there is no ban on licenses in Harvard Square; three have been granted since the alleged ban. McDavitt admits that licenses could still be issued if the commission decided they were necessary.

In addition, beer and wine at Ruggles would not be a menace to the community. People who would go to Ruggles to drink alcohol would be at the restaurant for dinner or lunch, not to get drunk. If the Defense Fund and others believe there are too many licenses in the Square, they should fight to remove licenses from owners of establishments who abuse the privelege.

Banning licenses in Harvard Square arbitrarily, as the Superior Court said, is unfair. The Defense Fund and the commission should judge each case on its merits and not just instinctively deny everyone the right to sell liquor.

Do the license commissioners and the Harvard Square Defense Fund have a vendetta against Ruggles? Maybe they just do not like cheddar cheese pizza.

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