What does it take to get a drink in this neighborhood?What does it take to get a drink around here? Navigating through 100 years of complicated laws is the current answer. After November, however, that may change.

Story by Jeff Siegel & Rachel Stone

It’s almost impossible to overstate how important next month’s wet-dry election is in Dallas’ social and cultural history. It’s not only the biggest wet-dry election in U.S. history since the end of Prohibition, but it’s also a landmark moment in Dallas. Since before Prohibition — for almost 100 years — most of Dallas has been dry in one form or another. It has been as much a part of Dallas as 100-degree days and the Cowboys.

In this, our wet-dry boundaries affected everyone. In dry areas, of course, residents have had to drive across town to buy a bottle of wine or a six-pack and couldn’t even order a drink in a restaurant until 1971. Even today, the private club limitations in dry areas that went into affect in 1971 make it more difficult to order liquor in Oak Cliff and North Dallas than in Lakewood. And even residents in wet areas feel the difference. If you live in a wet part of town that borders a dry area, you witness the Friday night flight to the liquor stores that guard the border.

All of this could change next month. If voters approve the two issues on the ballot, every restaurant in the city, regardless of wet-dry status, will be able to sell beer, wine and spirits without the private club paperwork, and retailers with the appropriate state licenses will be able to sell beer and wine.

In this month’s magazine, we look at the history of Dallas’ wet-dry status, our unique (and often frustrating) liquor laws, the role religion has played in keeping Dallas dry, and what it will mean to our neighborhood if voters approve both issues.

Q. Didn’t the city try to make all of East Dallas dry at one time?

Sort of. Back in ’85, the area surrounding Swiss Avenue and the Munger Place Historic District was still a real estate wild west. The houses were shaping up, but the neighborhood was rough.

A band of four teenagers had killed three people at random in East Dallas that spring. A rapist was on the loose. Dallas had the highest crime rate among the nation’s 20 largest cities in 1985, and the city’s crime rate would remain among the worst for years to come.

Much of that was blamed on drugs and alcohol.

In 1987, the Dallas City Council tried to curb alcohol sales in a 13-square-mile area that included Fair Park and South Dallas. A zoning ordinance created to target that area, which was home to some 350 package stores and bars at the time, would effectively ban liquor sales within 300 feet of a residence.

In Old East Dallas, seedy taverns encroached on residential neighborhoods, and residents tried to use the same ordinance to dry up the area bounded by Central Expressway, Richard, Live Oak, Glasgow, Peak and the Santa Fe Railroad. South Dallas liquor merchants sued the city over the ordinance in 1990. They argued the state’s liquor laws, which the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission enforces, supersede local laws.

In 1993, the Texas Supreme Court agreed with the liquor merchants, which put an end to the ordinance and Old East Dallas’ efforts to get dry.

Q. Will a “wet” Dallas mean new restaurants in Casa Linda?

When neighbors recently created a vision for the future of Garland Road, alcohol sales weren’t part of the equation.

The wet-dry petition arose suddenly and gained steam quickly. So the possibility that legal restrictions on alcohol sales could be lifted wasn’t even on the radar when the Garland Road Vision committee wrapped up its recommendations this past spring.

And it’s unlikely that it will be added to the conversation before the recommendations make it to City Hall this fall.

But many agree that making the Casa Linda area wet could serve it well. “Wetting up” the area could encourage new restaurant business, and it could alleviate the congregation of liquor stores near the White Rock Lake spillway, where our neighborhood changes from dry to wet.

“That has always been a negative in my mind, the line being there at Winsted and Garland Road,” says Gerald Worrall, who serves on the Garland Road Vision committee. “And that area now is the target of potential development activities, especially with the Santa Fe Trail coming in there.”

If voters in November approve alcohol sales at grocery and convenience stores, it could eventually help eliminate that cluster of stores that sell beer and wine, Garland Road Vision advocates say.

Gloria Tarpley, who served on the Garland Road committee until her recent appointment to the City Plan Commission, says the wet-dry election has been somewhat under the radar in her neighborhood, Forest Hills. The city’s budget woes top the minds of most people, she says.

Beer, wine and drinks by the glass already are legal in Casa Linda area restaurants that operate under the private club loophole.

“I’m not sure it’s going to change that much,” Tarpley says. “You can go to Chili’s in Casa Linda and get a margarita.”

But the change could bring new business to the Casa Linda area because it would eliminate the club-membership model, which forces business owners to run their food and liquor operations as if they were two separate businesses.

Proponents of the wet initiative say club memberships effectively are a $10,000-$20,000 annual tax on business owners whose real estate happens to fall in dry areas.

Under state law, liquor distributors such as Ben E. Keith are prohibited from delivering to restaurants in dry areas. So restaurants serving alcohol under the club membership model must purchase and pick up their alcohol from Class B retail warehouses, which charge about 11 percent more than wholesale distributors, says Matt Spillers, owner of Eno’s restaurant in Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts District. That adds labor and transportation costs, including vehicles, insurance and fuel. Plus, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission charges extra fees to restaurants operating as private clubs, and private clubs must keep separate books for food and alcohol sales.

Only so much of that added cost can be passed onto consumers. So restaurant owners in dry areas are less likely to profit from alcohol sales than their competitors in wet areas a few miles away.

“I would almost say I would never open another restaurant in a dry area,” says Matt Spillers, who owns Eno’s in Oak Cliff and is a vocal proponent of the change (although this fall he is opening a new Bishop Arts restaurant, Oddfellows, with nine investors).

The change would make it easier for restaurants in Casa Linda to profit and serve customers, says Craig Perry of AmReit, the real estate company that owns Casa Linda Plaza.

“There’s a potential to attract some stores that we don’t currently have,” Perry says. “We really feel that’s up to the voters, and we’ll see what happens in November.”

Q. How long has liquor been a political debate?

Wet-dry has always been controversial in Texas. In 1887, a leading anti-Prohibitionist, R.Q. Mills, accused the media of bias in its reporting of the wet side during the fight over adding a Prohibition amendment to the state constitution: “The Prohibitionists had a monopoly with our reporting,” and he said the media who had criticized his position were guilty of fraud.

And in 1920, prominent Dallas physician Dr. Curtice Rosser exchanged letters with his friend William Jennings Bryan, the thrice-failed Democratic presidential candidate, about the most important issues in the upcoming presidential election. They agreed it would be war profiteering, the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles (that ended World War I) and Prohibition.

Q. Did Dallasites make moonshine?

Stills and corn liquor are not just hillbilly doings. In 1936, reported a Dallas newspaper, police raided a still in the “North Dallas Negro district” near what is today Cole and Lemmon. They seized 950 gallons of mash, but the still’s operators escaped — even though the newspaper reported that the police had staked out the house for most of the night.

Q. What’s all this about “Class B retailers”?

Texas’ Class B system dates to 1971, as a companion to a law allowing restaurants and bars to sell liquor by the drink. Before that, no restaurant in Texas was allowed to sell liquor — even in wet areas (although they could sell beer and wine). Customers brought their booze with them from home, and the restaurant sold them setups — mixers, juices and the like.

The reason for the law? Retailers who thought liquor by the drink would cost them sales successfully lobbied state legislators, who gave them a monopoly on selling liquor to restaurants, bars and private clubs (restaurants that serve liquor in the state’s dry areas). Retailers said they would lose business because consumers would stop buying liquor at their stores to bring to restaurants. So the legislature agreed to give them the monopoly to make up for the lost sales.

Retailers who sell liquor to restaurants and private clubs are called Class B retailers, after the name of the license they obtain. They include some of the state’s best-known retailers, including Sigel’s and Goody Goody in the Dallas area. Texas is one of three states — Kansas and South Carolina are the others — with four tiers of distribution: manufacturer, distributor, retailer and restaurant. The other 47 just have three — manufacturer, distributor and restaurant.

According to this 1971 state law, every restaurant in Texas, whether it’s in a wet or dry area, must purchase liquor from a Class B retailer. The November election would not change this law; it would simply eliminate private clubs in Dallas and make every restaurant a restaurant, in terms of how it can purchase and sell alcohol.

The difference between private clubs and restaurants is that liquor can be delivered to restaurants in wet areas, whereas private club restaurants in dry areas must travel to a Class B retailer’s warehouse to pick up liquor — Sigel’s is near Harry Hines and Preston, and Goody Goody’s is in Addison, for example. Private clubs must also buy their beer and wine, but not liquor, from Class B retailers, while restaurants in wet areas can buy beer and wine directly from the distributors. Class B retailers also buy their beer and wine from distributors, which translates to a markup when the retailers sell it to private clubs.

What does this mean for consumers? Typically, but not always, they’ll pay more for alcohol in a private club. The extra tier adds cost to the product, and restaurants usually pass that onto their customers.

Q. How do Texans outside of Dallas like their liquor?

Alcohol has never been especially popular with Texans. When Prohibition began in 1919, 199 of the 254 counties were dry; 43 were practically dry, including Dallas County. Even today, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, 29 of the 254 counties are still dry, and only 43 are completely wet.

Q. It could be worse … what if the state owned our liquor stores?

In 18 states (and one county) in the U.S., the state owns the liquor stores. These are called control states, and though there are differences in how each state defines control (some states allow private retailers to sell wine or beer, for example), the result is that what is for sale is controlled by the state.

This is a legacy of Prohibition; the political compromise that made repeal possible allowed each state to pass its own liquor laws.

Pennsylvania has taken control one step further. Currently, grocery stores in Pennsylvania can’t sell wine. Instead, the state liquor authorities have installed wine vending machines, from which the customer can buy wine, similar to buying a soft drink or a candy bar from a vending machine. Similar, but with a couple of exceptions.

The consumer puts his or her driver’s license into the machine, where age information on the bar code is processed. The photo on the driver’s license is matched with a video image of the buyer at the kiosk, and a state liquor board employee monitors each transaction to confirm that the video of the buyer matches the driver’s license.

Q. How is it that Dallas County is dry yet parts of Dallas are wet?

The basis for Texas’ wet-dry laws is local option, which does what it says: Local voters can decide whether to sell alcohol in their locality. It’s one of the cornerstones of the Texas liquor system, says Lou Bright, former general counsel for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

“The priority is that local voters always have the final say, and can’t be forced to change their local preference by someone from outside their locality,” Bright says. “This doesn’t mean that it’s not confusing or can’t be ambiguous, but that’s always the principle.”

How confusing? Consider what happened in 2006, when a group of North Dallas and Lake Highlands residents tried to schedule a wet-dry election for their respective sections of the city. The Texas Supreme Court ruled that the wet-dry election couldn’t be held because the election was designated for the current Justice of the Peace precinct boundaries, when it should have been designated for the boundaries established in 1877, when the area went dry.

State law defines localities three ways and uses the principle that the larger locality, such as a city, can’t force a smaller locality, such as a JP precinct, to change its behavior:

• Justice of the peace precinct. JP precincts are not voting precincts, but legal and administrative divisions within a county. One JP precinct can be dry, while the one next to it in the same city or county can be wet. Interestingly, Dallas’ wet-dry boundaries don’t follow the current JP lines, but older, less-well-defined JP boundaries.

• City. This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. A JP precinct that’s dry can’t be turned wet in a citywide election unless all of the precinct is within the city. This was one of the issues in the run-up to the November election, when there was some doubt as to whether the JP precinct in Oak Cliff that went dry in 1956 was contained within the city of Dallas. Turns out it was.

• County. Again, not as simple as it sounds, and for many of the same reasons. When Lubbock voted wet in 2009, the drys claimed that part of the county was dry from previous elections, and that a city-wide election couldn’t affect those areas — which included part of Lubbock. Their argument failed in court.

Q. Is most of Dallas still dry for religious reasons?

Religious groups have traditionally taken the lead in fighting wet-dry elections in Texas, and they played a key role 50 years ago when Oak Cliff went dry. But there doesn’t seem to be much organized religious opposition to November’s two wet-dry ballot issues.

Does this mean that neighborhood churches don’t care about the issue any more? Or that Dallas is less religious than it used to be?

No on both counts, several religious leaders say. It’s not so much that alcohol isn’t important; rather, it’s that other issues have become more important, and abstinence isn’t the issue it once was. In addition, Dallas has changed significantly from the smaller, predominantly mainstream Protestant city of the 1960s and 1970s to a million-plus population urban center that includes more Catholics, Jews and non-denominational Protestants — all of whom are less concerned about alcohol.

“We’re just getting to this point later than other cities,” says George Mason, pastor at the moderate Wilshire Baptist Church. “The city is more diverse, and we have more people who have different attitudes about this subject.”

Also, says Rev. Tim McLemore of SMU, alcohol is no longer the good vs. evil issue that it has traditionally been among the mainline Protestant groups that have been in the forefront of the U.S. temperance movement. Mason says this is even true for some conservative Baptists.

“We have knowledge about the benefits of the limited use of alcohol that we didn’t have 100 years ago,” says McLemore, who notes that the United Methodists have changed their views to allow “judicious use” of alcohol. “So we’re less inclined to take a black and white view.”

Finally, churches have less influence over their members than they did two and three decades ago. Times were, Mason says, if the church said not to drink, believers didn’t drink. These days, that veto power is largely gone.

Column: Churches don’t seem to be be making a fuss over the not-so-holy spirits anymore

Q. What am I actually voting on?

Dallas voters will decide two issues in November’s wet-dry election:

1. Whether to eliminate the private club regulation for restaurants that sell alcohol in dry areas. The private club rule, in place since 1971, requires restaurants to admit customers into the restaurant’s club so they can buy alcohol. It also requires the restaurant to keep a paper trail of club members.
2. Whether to allow the sale of beer and wine, but not spirits, at retailers throughout the entire city. Currently, only one-third of Dallas — roughly White Rock Lake to Irving and downtown to Walnut Hill — is wet for retail sales.

Neither issue is dependent on the other. Voters can elect to allow retail sales but keep the private club restrictions, or vice versa.

If the Texas Supreme Court decides there are enough signatures to hold the referendum, the election will be held Nov. 2.

Registration to be eligible to vote in the election ends Oct. 4. Early voting runs Oct. 18-29.

For more information: dalcoelections.org

Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.