Health Department Closes “Aces & Eights”

In the spring and summer of 2009, shortly after its opening, the Aces & Eights bar at 34 Ave. A generated a firestorm of complaints from the neighborhood. It was not a unique debate, just one more episode in the bar vs. neighbors drama that plays out all over the city.

But the Aces & Eights uproar, it turns out, probably could have been avoided altogether: the bar never obtained permission to open its doors, according to city officials.

On Tuesday, the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shuttered the 18-month old watering hole for lack of a valid operating permit. It had been cited for the same violation in April 2010, and ordered not to reopen until the permit was issued, according to the health department’s public affairs office.

A note signed by “the management and staff” posted in the window Wednesday attributed the closure to “unforeseen paperwork/permit issues” and promised that they were “currently doing everything in our power to make sure we will reopen again tomorrow.”

Operating permits issued by the health department are the basic permission slip a business needs to serve food and drink. Because the city never issued the initial permit, Aces & Eights was never entered into the inspections system, and apparently never inspected for health and safety issues as a result, according to health department officials.

A search of the city’s consumer-friendly restaurant inspection database turns up only the Upper East Side branch of Aces & Eights, on First Avenue at 87th Street, which has had plenty of violations for issues such as mice in the food areas. The two bars share identical logos and menus and have a joint web site, but an employee answering the phone uptown declined comment, saying, “We’re not affiliated with them any more” before hanging up abruptly. Attempts to reach the LES branch’s general manager who voraciously defended the bar on the EV Grieve blog last summer were unsuccessful.

Even though the operating permit was never granted, Aces & Eights did succeed in obtaining the state’s permission to serve alcohol. According to the State Liquor Authority’s web site, the company that owns the bar, 34 A Restaurant Corporation, was first granted a temporary liquor license on April 30, 2009. That license has been renewed monthly, and remains valid into October. An application for a full, permanent liquor license, filed in April 2009, is listed as “pending.”

Community Board 3 has played host to many of the complaints, and this week’s overdue closure had district manager Susan Stetzer fuming at the system.

“How is it possible in one of the best and greatest cities in the world that we could have such gross inefficiency and potential threat to public health?” Stetzer said. She said she’s been frustrated in her efforts to obtain information from the health department (in contrast with other city agencies, which are more forthcoming).  Since filing a complaint a month ago, after a resident tipped her about the permit situation, Stetzer said there had been a clear absence of DOH follow-through.  Questions from The Lo-Down about the closing were the first indication her complaints had been acted on, she said.

More than a year ago, in May 2009, CB3 members adopted a resolution calling on the State Liquor Authority to deny the transfer of the full, permanent liquor license from the premises’ former occupant, Mo Pitkin’s, based on “misrepresentation.” The resolution, adopted just a few months after the bar opened, cited Aces & Eights’ failure as of that time to serve food, saying that the community board had approved it as a full-service restaurant, and not a tavern. Food service began a few months later.

“[The State Liquor Authority] requires that applicants state that they have all permits—but this obviously doesn’t work and they should have to supply copies of all required permits,” Stetzer said. “Also, if [the Department of Health] would be more accessible to community boards and would give us information requested by return email as other agencies do—we could get much more work done with them and deal with these issues much more efficiently.”

This week, in light of the lack of an operating permit, Stetzer requested the state liquor board rescind the bar’s temporary alcohol license.