Nondrinking diners may be due for better service

Recently observed lunchtime scene in a New York restaurant: Owner: "What would you like to drink?" Customer: "Nothing, thank you."

Owner (angrily): "This is not a casual luncheon place where you can have a quick lunch and do business and leave without having a drink."

Customer (also angry, but not angry enough to leave): "All right, I'll have a glass of wine."

The restaurant owner could have lost his state liquor license for this kind of conduct, says Lawrence Gedda, chairman of the New York State Alcoholic Beverage Commission. But the customer refused to tell the commission the name of the restaurant because he didn't want the business to get into serious trouble.

According to groups who watch this sort of trend, a growing number of restaurants, trying to make a profit while inflation drives up their costs, is more aggressively pushing the sale of alcoholic beverages, especially wine.

This kind of enterprise, as some restaurateurs call it, frequently is pushed to the point of violating some "dramshop" laws. Eighteen states now have such statutes which make it illegal for restaurants and bars to engage in more than polite, "suggestive selling." In actual practice, the laws have been seldom enforced.

Now, however, former US Sen. Harold Hughes of Iowa, chairman of the new 21 -member Presidential Commission on Alcoholism and other Alcohol Related Problems , plans to do something about the situation.

The commission, which held its first meeting last week, will join already accelerating public and private steps throughout the nation aimed at the prevention of alcohol abuse. A short-run aim is to curb drunk driving this holiday season.

Waiters and even restaurant owners "are more aggressive than they used to be" in selling alcoholic drinks, admits David French, a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association. "But if you're not made to feel comfortable in a restaurant, you're not going to return."

Fred Sampson, executive director of the New York State Restaurant Association , puts it more bluntly. Not ordering a drink in many places "is just like going into a gas station and ordering two gallons of gasoline," he says.

At its next meeting, the new national commission -- the first ever to have some of its members appointed by the President --of how alcohol is presented to the public in restaurants and bars. It will also probe how well state laws are enforced, and what more needs to be done to curb increasing teen-age drinking, among many other things.

"Even nice restaurants make you feel pretty badly if you don't order a drink, " says Mr. Hughes, who is a reformed alcoholic. "It should be as acceptable not to drink as it is to drink."

The Hughes commission, which has an initial budget of $500,000 and will hold hearings across the country, will also investigate alcohol sales aboard airliners.

The new group will join the efforts of some that have been working against alcohol abuse for years.

One is the private, nonprofit National Council on Alcoholism Inc. (NCA), which recently began its annual SOBER ("slow on the bottle, enjoy the road") campaign in 10 states: Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Alaska, Alabama, Washington, Kentucky, Idaho, Montana, and Hawaii.

The National Restaurant Association is trying to do something about a double standard of hospitality for drinkers and nondrinkers. Its "project hospitality" offers bimonthly seminars for waiters and other industry employees to school them in the proper -- and polite -- way of serving all customers.

"People don't go to restaurants because they want a hassle," says the NRA's Mr. French.

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