Lola now has a liquor license again in Soho Cajun bar battle

By Lori Haught

The Appellate Division on Aug. 31 overturned a prior ruling by the State Supreme Court revoking the liquor license of Lola, a Cajun-creole restaurant and jazz lounge at 15 Watts St. in Soho. The Soho Alliance, which originally won its Article 78 challenge in the lower court, is now preparing for another legal battle against the issuing of the license.

The restaurant and lounge applied for the liquor license on March 2, 2005, after moving from Chelsea to Soho because of rent issues.

After the initial approval of the license by the State Liquor Authority, the Soho Alliance filed suit last year under Article 78, used to challenge the decisions of state and city agencies. Last December, State Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Shafer ruled that the S.L.A. was wrong to have issued the license, and revoked it.

Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, said the S.L.A. presented circular reasoning, at best, for granting the license. Justice Shafer, in her decision, stated that the reasons given by the S.L.A. did not warrant an exemption to the 500-foot rule, which states that the S.L.A. cannot issue liquor licenses if there are already three or more establishments with liquor licenses within a 500-foot radius, unless doing so is found to be “in the public interest.” There are 35 establishments already serving liquor within 500 feet of Lola.

“It served the public interest because it served the public interest,” Sweeney said of the ultimate point of the S.L.A.’s final five-page report on why the license was granted.

But the Appellate Division overturned Shafer’s verdict and remanded the decision back to the S.L.A. for a clearer explanation of the authority’s reasons for granting the license.

Michael Smith, special assistant to Joshua Toas — the S.L.A.’s chief executive — said Lola does not currently have its liquor license. Smith said the S.L.A. — which has seen significant turnover among its members since it wrote its initial decision for the license — has not yet offered any new justifications for the original decision. Yet, he said the authority, at this point, cannot overturn its earlier approval. Once the S.L.A. states its justifications more clearly, Lola’s license will be granted, he said.

Tom Patrick-Odeen and his wife Gayle Patrick-Odeen, Lola’s co-owners, said they are relieved by the Appellate Division’s decision. They hope to open Lola in eight weeks.

“I feel like my life was handed back to me,” Tom Patrick-Odeen said.

“It’s vindication,” Gayle Patrick-Odeen said. “You have something back that you never should have lost.”

Attorney Eric D. Sherman represented the Patrick-Odeens.

“The Appellate Division sent a clear message that the lower court had improperly substituted its own judgment for that of the liquor authority,” he said. “In fact, it was the agency that also heard the arguments from the community opposition groups. Having heard those arguments, the agency was uniquely suited to determine whether Lola was a suitable candidate for a liquor license, and it was.”

Gayle Patrick-Odeen was quick to point out this business wasn’t just one of many for her and her husband; it’s their only one and their life.

“This is my husband’s blood and sweat,” she said. “To say that I am beyond ecstatic is an understatement.”

Gayle Patrick-Odeen commented that the ordeal has left her doubting both the judicial system and the motives of some community members. Lola has been in business 19 years and had a two-star rating from The New York Times while on W. 22nd St. She wants to know why the community is fighting them while endorsing two other businesses in the same area.

“I really question Sean Sweeney’s methods and ethics,” she said. “Why would anyone be so diligent?”

Sweeney stated that the alliance has endorsed such businesses as a design company and an art store, as well as bar/restaurants similar to Lola with a good reputation.

“Lola has a bad history,” he said. “Zagat’s said you do not want to live above Lola.”

While Smith said the S.L.A. couldn’t change the original decision unless the applicant itself, Lola, asks for review, the appellate court’s decision does allow the Soho Alliance to file another Article 78 lawsuit.

Sweeney said the alliance had already discussed filing another Article 78 and are preparing to fight the license.

Noting that the S.L.A. this June denied a beer and wine license for Lola, he said it will be interesting to see what justifications the authority will find to approve a liquor license.

Barry Mallin, attorney for the Soho Alliance, said he couldn’t see how the S.L.A. could justify a 36th establishment serving alcohol in the area.

“The community’s position is the right one,” Mallin said. “It will be vindicated.”

In response to a Page Six gossip item in the Sept. 7 New York Post, stating that the alliance was ordered to pay Lola’s court costs, Sweeney said the decision, in fact, states that the alliance is not responsible for court costs and no one from the Post had contacted him.