Wellesley, Mass., has a reputation as a “dry town,” but just because we have no liquor stores and force restaurants to be of a certain size or jump through a few other hoops if they want to sell booze doesn’t mean the town is dry by a long shot.
Wellesley once was technically dry, back during prohibition in the early 1900s, and actually stayed that way through the middle 1900s (Babson College founder Roger Babson even ran for President of the United States in 1940 as a candidate for the National Prohibition Party). However, things changed in the mid-1970s. Here’s a quick look back and an update on where things stand (thanks to Wellesley Board of Selectmen member Gig Babson and Deputy Police Chief Bill Brooks for their time in explaining the ins and outs).
According to the Town of Wellesley’s “Rules and Regulation Governing Alcoholic Beverages” revised in 2008, the Massachusetts General Law Chapter 138 passed in 1933 covers the sale and licensing of alcoholic beverages in the state. Wellesley residents voted every two years from 1934 to 1966 to deny the sale of alcoholic beverages by hotels with 50 of more seats. But in 1968, Wellesley voters by a narrow margin (39 votes) gave the OK for such sales, and votes by Wellesleyites on the state election ballot in 1970 and 1972 made it official.
In 1972 and 1974, voters also gave the go-ahead for restaurants and function rooms with seating capacity for 100 or more people to sell alcoholic beverages (Outside seating and anything above 10 bar stools/seats do not count towards the 100 seat minimum.). Restaurant owners must have common victualler licenses that confirm they have the equipment on premises for cooking, preparing and serving food, and restaurants such as Blue Ginger and The Cottage do indeed serve alcohol to patrons.
Restaurants are allowed to sell booze at sushi bars, but patrons must eat if they want to drink (that goes for restaurants in general: they can only serve you alcoholic beverages if you’re eating, or if you are planning to eat – such as if you’re in a designated waiting area). Wellesley also has rules limiting bar seats/stools to 10, with more specific rules for counters built before April 1, 2006. A couple of other tidbits: no signs on the outside of an establishment promoting any alcoholic beverage brands; no pitchers; and the fee for a restaurant and function room is $5K.
In 1983, the state gave the town permission to start licensing clubs such as the Italo-American Club, Wellesley College Club and Wellesley Country Club to serve alcoholic beverages, as well as to license other clubs so long as they aren’t commercial entities. Through this special act of the legislature, the town was also allowed to permit Babson College and Wellesley College to sell wine and malt beverages in dining halls maintained by them, and to grant alcohol permits to non-profits holding activities. (Wellesley College also has a bar called Punch’s Alley (shown below) and Babson has one called the Bottom Line Lounge at its Executive Conference Center.) One-day licenses can also be granted to nonprofits organizing special activities so long as the events don’t take place on town property.
Residents of Wellesley voted to approve these changes in town elections held in 1983, 1984 and 1986, all by sizeable margins.
Wellesley also allows restaurants not licensed to serve alcohol to let patrons bring their own beer or wine to enjoy with a meal (you are not allowed to do this at a restaurant that does have a liquor license). Restaurants such as Café Mangal, Jimmy’s Café and Yama are examples where you can BYOB in Wellesley. This gives such establishments an option, given that Wellesley has not adopted a provision in Section 11 of Mass General Law Chapter 138 for granting barrooms or taverns or restaurants with fewer than 100 seats to serve alcoholic beverages. So there really aren’t any regulations, but the town does keep tabs on which eateries allow BYOB and provides them with a set of best practice guidelines (drinking age awareness, no employee drinking, etc) that are similar to those given to licensed restaurants.
Cafe Mangal’s Berna and Mehmet Ozargun say they and their customers are happy with the BYOB allowance, though they would like to have a beer and wine license. “We do not know any other town around with a 100-seat requirement,” they say (Café Mangal has 50-60 seats max).
What else isn’t allowed?
Supermarkets, convenience stores and package stores are not allowed to sell booze in Wellesley and haven’t asked for permission in recent years, according to town officials. Section 15 of Mass General Law Chapter 138 does have provisions for such sales, but this issue has never been put to voters in town on a ballot question, Brooks says. So if you’re wondering why the Roche Bros in Dedham, for example, can sell wine and the one in Linden Square cannot, that’s why. What’s more, only 3 supermarkets per chain in Massachusetts are allowed to sell alcohol, so doing this would mean not selling it somewhere else and dealing with the fallout of that change (a high profile stink took place in Westwood in recent years involving supermarket chains Wegmans and Roche Bros. over Wegmans’ bid to sell beer and wine). Wellesley Wine Press blogger Robert Dwyer has compiled a list of grocery stores in Massachusetts that sell wine, including Roche Bros., and Whole Foods. Massachusetts voters rejected a proposal in 2006 that would have allowed more grocery stores to sell wine. And as Dwyer notes, other tony Massachusetts communities such as Belmont, Rockport and Weston have become significantly less dry in recent years, with Weston’s Omni Foods store being allowed to sell wine as of 2008 after a 100-year dry spell for such sales in that town.
Meanwhile, business owners in neighboring communities have taken advantage of Wellesley’s lack of liquor stores, bordering the town in 3 places with shops that sell beer, wine and more (Lower Falls Wine on Rte. 16 just over the Wellesley line in Newton, Town Line Liquors just over the town line on Rte. 135 in Natick and Nine East Wine Emporium just over the Wellesley line on Rte. 9 east in Natick).
So, Wellesley isn’t really a dry town, and could even become wetter down the road if people petition for it and the complicated legislative maze is navigated.