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New SLA Guidelines Offer a Narrow, Eurocentric View of NYC Bar Food

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There’s more to the city’s bars than hot dogs, wings, and Cuomo chips, Eater critic Robert Sietsema argues

Buffalo wings as served in Buffalo at Anchor Bar
The State Liquor Authority thinks this is what you should be eating with your frozen margarita.

It’s called the SLA, for State Liquor Authority, but this government organization also wants to be in charge of the food New Yorkers are eating. The SLA, which refers to itself on its website as the “Authority,” was established by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Law of 1934, just as Prohibition was ending. And the organization still promulgates rather old-fashioned attitudes toward booze, in addition to some regressive and even odious ideas about what should constitute “bar food.”

During the pandemic, the SLA has made frequent adjustments concerning how and where liquor is to be served in public establishments. Early on, despite decreeing that booze could only be provided for carryout in closed containers, along with food purchased at the same time, the SLA adopted a permissive attitude, looking the other way as freely sloshing cocktails were dispensed from windows in restaurants and bars, and then consumed standing on the sidewalk.

To fulfill the food requirement, an Irish bar I know in Chelsea put out a bowl of apples next to the drink window, and didn’t charge for them, either. Upstate in horserace haven Saratoga Springs, where the potato chip was supposedly invented, a bar sold dollar bags of them, called “Cuomo chips,” to fulfill the requirement that food be served with alcoholic beverages.

But the scene outside bars and restaurants in May and June turned rambunctious, with knots of drinkers standing right outside restaurants and bars with little social distancing and spilling out into the streets. Social media reveled in these scenes, causing Gov. Andrew Cuomo to admonish local governments to rein in public drinking.

Rightly, perhaps, the SLA has tried to partly put the kibosh on the public consumption of alcohol by once again, as it did back in March, decreeing a few days ago that food must be served along with drinks in the new outdoor, sit-down settings, in the form of a “food item.” The document goes on to specify the exact nature of the food that must be eaten with a drink.

The decree (a relentlessly regal word) starts off saying that the so-called food item must be purchased with the diner’s initial beverage, implying that before-dinner drinks are out of the question if one is seated inside a restaurant (upstate) or outdoors (New York City). It specifies that shared items are permitted, as long as they total up to a full meal.

The exact language: “However, one or more shareable food item(s) may be purchased, so long as it/they would sufficiently serve the number of people in the party and each item would individually meet the food standard below.” Here, its advice via the word “shareable” seems to suggest it will be okay for multiple diners to dip their mitts into a common bowl — which is inadvisable during a pandemic.

An oblong bowl of peanut dusted kebabs and onions, with wooden sticks protruding.
SLA: Are Nigerian suya okay?

It would have been enough to say that sit-down alcohol must be confined to the context of a full meal. But then the SLA goes deeper into the weeds by trying to define what a such a meal might consist of, with recourse to some very Eurocentric ideas about food, effectively excluding many cultures.

The document permits “sandwiches, soups or other foods, whether fresh, processed, precooked or frozen.” A Q&A section then qualifies exactly what the SLA considers a minimally acceptable meal:

“… foods which are similar in quality and substance to sandwiches and soups; for example, salads, wings, or hotdogs [sic] would be of that quality and substance; however, a bag of chips bowl of nuts, or candy alone are not.”

While not giving a very good idea of what quantity of food is required — One hot dog or two? Five chicken wings or 10? — the example gives the impression that the foods mentioned constitute a universally accepted standard.

It implies an archaic idea of bar food, and specifies a narrow range of Eurocentric choices. No tacos? No suya? No falafel? No chaats? No empanadas? No jianbing? Yes, the SLA is providing a definition that ignores most of the city’s population, setting a standard confusing to follow, especially if a place doesn’t offer traditional bar foods.

The implication is that everyone should understand and take for granted the SLA’s definition of a meal, that everyone should know exactly the approach implied by “salads, wings, or hotdogs.”

The decree gives the SLA’s enforcement wing, the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, as well as local enforcement authorities, enormous latitude in deciding what constitutes a meal and what doesn’t.

Considerations of necessary food quantity aside, to the bar serving hot dogs or chicken wings, the rules are relatively clear. But to a restaurant serving another of the city’s diverse cuisines, the decree is completely opaque.