The Arkansas Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that a private club operating in dry Columbia County was properly issued a permit to serve alcohol as a way to enhance the experience of customers at its restaurant, a finding that the court said conforms to a broader alcohol law the Legislature passed in 2003.
A group of citizens sued to challenge the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board's decision to issue a permit for Todd Gilreath's club in Magnolia. The permit was issued for Lamar's Bistro, which is a club within a restaurant operating as Bayou Bistro.
Opponents argued that the club didn't conform to the state law that allows private clubs because its sole purpose would be to serve alcohol.
But the appeals court, in a 5-1 decision, ruled that serving food constitutes entertainment and that serving alcohol would enhance the experience.
Judge Rita Gruber wrote in a dissent that the majority allowed the control board to go beyond its legal authority.
"Under the majority's interpretation, any restaurant serving alcohol in a dry county ... may now qualify as a private club," Gruber wrote.
Gruber said that expanding the authority of the control board negates the power the state gives to counties in allowing voters to decide whether to allow alcohol sales.
Columbia County has been dry since 1943, though three other establishments also serve alcohol.
Little Rock attorney Jim Julian, who represents the opponents — Jack Barnes, Bobby J. Frizzell, Harold Harris and others — said he could mount an appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court if his clients decide to take that step.
"If you read the dissenting opinion of Judge Gruber, she hit upon the issues that we believe to be the most compelling here," Julian said.
The majority opinion, written by Judge David M. Glover, says Lamar's Bistro operates as a nonprofit and that Gilreath met the requirement of the law when he disclosed on his application that "the primary purpose of the club is to operate as a restaurant (and) the sale of alcohol is to supplement the dining experience."
At the initial permit hearing, three opponents testified.
"All three basically testified that they oppose the consumption of alcohol, that the voters of Columbia County had made clear their desire for the county to be dry and that granting the permit would erode the dry nature of the county," Glover wrote.
Glover wrote that the ruling would likely have gone the other way had Gilreath wanted to open a stand-alone bar in a different location. But Gilreath requires that customers order food if they want to drink and he has a three-drink limit for each patron.
The majority found that the law that enables the control board to issue permits includes "entertainment" as a permitted reason for serving alcohol and that "food service" is a form of entertainment.
To challenge the permit, the opponents had to sue the state Department of Finance and Administration.
Gilreath didn't immediately return a phone message seeking comment.