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Dry January notwithstanding, in the midst of a dark, cold pandemic winter New York City is experiencing a drinking renaissance. And here’s some cheering news for drinkers and the hard-hit hospitality industry — on Wednesday, the New York State Liquor Authority approved a request by NATO (the National Association of Theatre Owners, not the military treaty organization) to seek liquor licenses for movie theaters. 

Beer and wine might soon be a feature of your New York movie experience. Photo Montage: Brad Stallcup & Geoffrey Moffett/Unsplash

According to the original appeal document, NATO seeks to gain clearance for movie theaters to apply for a beer-and-wine liquor license without requiring the designation of being a restaurant. To qualify as such, city establishments historically had to prove the presence of a kitchen, chef, entree-style menu items, and proper refrigeration to support said menu — the parameters of which the much-loved Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Nighthawks had previously managed. Other theaters were left with the sole option of a “tavern” permit, where alcohol was available to consume in the lobby only (chugging a beer before Minions 2, anyone?). 

The approval is seen as a major win for the city’s movie theaters, which have struggled mightily in the pandemic era of dual-release streaming options and a delayed opening permit by state officials. NATO attorney Theresa M. Russo argued the NYS Liquor Authority’s restrictions were a holdover from Prohibition-era legislature — and that in the many decades that have followed, notable exceptions had already been made for other city businesses. Russo asserted that the NYS SLA “has granted licenses to numerous other business categories under ABCL § 81, including jewelry stores, antique shops, and even certain doctor’s offices. Motion picture theatres should stand on equal footing with these establishments when applying for this breed of license.”

As retail stores, spas, and salons add happy hour menus to their brick-and-mortar locations in a play for foot traffic, movie theaters will now be able to join other businesses in building back the once-unstoppable footprint of local neighborhood economies. For Hell’s Kitchen, renewed interest in the Regal Theater and AMC Empire 25 on W42nd Street could bring crowds who come for a movie, and stay to patronize other HK bars and restaurants — after all, the new permit only allows for the sale of wine and beer, so if you’d like to unpack The Matrix 4 over martinis, you’ll need to do so at Dutch Fred’s or one of the neighborhood’s other many excellent bars

The ruling also comes as welcome news to those still mourning the cocktail-friendly Landmark Theatres on W57th St, which disappeared in a mysterious cloud of lawsuits and missing leather movie seats in August of 2020. 

The now-shuttered Landmark Theatres on W57th. Photo: Matt Fox

No one appears to be more excited, however, than New York NATO president John Masher, who has been advocating the change for over a decade. Masher told Deadline, “As moviegoers continue to return to the big screen and given the incredible economic disruption the pandemic has caused, this will help keep many independent, local theaters, particularly in upstate downtowns and commercial corridors, in business and employing local people. Cheers.” 

And with that, New Yorkers can raise a glass both to renewed city revenue and regular wine-and-rom-com nights. Cheers, indeed! 

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