The owners of a popular cocktail bar said that it may have to close unless a change to its licence could be agreed.
Mark Friel and Todd Williams run Twisted Lemon in Middle Street, Brighton, which is licensed as a restaurant.
But they want the requirement to sell “substantial food” removed from the conditions of their premises licence.
They held their hands up to running the venue as a cocktail bar, describing their extensive drinks menu as a “victim of its own success”.
When they took over the venue in 2011 the pair said that they ran it as a restaurant in a similar style to the previous occupant Blind Lemon Alley but with the twist of cocktails.
Their barrister Charles Holland told a Brighton and Hove City Council licensing panel: “When the premises opened as burgers, ribs and cocktails in 2011, they had every intention of complying with the restaurant conditions.
“Customers were voting with their wallets and feet for that not to happen.”
Mr Holland told the panel that his clients had tried giving away food to fulfil the terms of the licence but most of it was going in the bin.
A visit by Sussex Police and council licensing officers in December 2014 found signs of food being served but officers felt that the restaurant was breaking the rules. It was the second time that the owners received a warning.
Mr Friel told the panel that he had not sought to change the licence then as he was told by Sussex Police that it would be opposed.
During a visit by police and council licensing officers in December 2018, staff confirmed that they did not have to buy food with their drinks.
This prompted the latest warning and the application to relax the licence conditions.
If the new licence is granted then food will still be available but not as a requirement.
The bar is in the heart of the Brighton with a saturation of licensed premises, the panel was told.
Sussex Police put extra officers into the area on busy nights as part of Operation Marble, saying that the force has a high number of call-outs to the area.
The three busiest streets for Sussex Police are West Street, Middle Street and Ship Street, with 340 incidents in the past 12 months related to drink and drugs, the force said.
It is in an area designated the “cumulative impact zone” by the council which restricts new premises from offering alcohol for sale in an effort to reduce crime and disorder.
The zone was described by Mr Holland as like a full bath with a new venue similar to adding a jug of water, whereas Twisted Lemon was currently a jug taken out which could be put back in again.
He described the venue as a “safe haven” for women and the older crowd.
Mr Holland said: “We are a safe haven. We are offering something different, something the policy encourages. We don’t have stags (and) we very rarely have hen nights, certainly not wearing fancy dress.
“We don’t have binge drinkers. We don’t have determined drinkers. We don’t have – to use Mr Friel’s blunt noun – ‘idiots’.
“There have been less than 10 evictions on 10 occasions in the past seven years.”
Customers, many of them women, sent in 23 letters of support for the venue.
Mr Friel said that stag dos were always turned away and that he did not like having groups of more than four men, describing a bar full of men as “not a good idea”.
He said that hens often came in without their outfits in the afternoon but would not be allowed in during the evening.
One member of the licensing panel, Councillor Lizzie Deane, said that Twisted Lemon was listed on the Go Hen website.
Councillor Jackie O’Quinn, who chaired the panel, said: “You are an alcohol-led establishment. If you were applying for a licence for this as new, you wouldn’t get it. You just would not get it.
“What you are trying to do is change from a restaurant to a pub. It’s not a variation. It is of a big scale in our CIZ and that’s what we are struggling with.
“Much as we wish to support a small business, and we can see you have worked very hard, we have to be very careful about maintaining our policy.
“Nobody has been called to your premises. We don’t know if people have left your premises and then things have happened to them. This is why it is called the CIZ.”
The panel, at Hove Town Hall, ended today (Friday 15 March) with the members retiring to make their decision. They said that Twisted Lemon would be told within five working days.