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Quantifying Happy Hour

One of the thousand-plus new laws passed by the last Texas legislative session reduced the legal level of intoxication from a blood-alcohol content of .10 percent to .08 percent, effective September 1. Organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving hope the new law will knock Texas out of the national lead in alcohol-related highway fatalities; hospitality groups including the Texas Restaurant Association worry that the new limit will penalize responsible social drinkers without getting problem drinkers off the road.

"We opposed the measure because we don't think it will solve the problem of drunk driving," says Yvonne Lemmon, executive director of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association. "But there was a lot of money at stake for the state in this, so we didn't strongly lobby against it." (Texas stood to lose some $25 million in federal highway funds unless it joined the 16 other .08 states.)

So how much drink makes a drunk under the new law? According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it's three drinks in two hours for a 120-pound woman, or five drinks for a 170-pound man. One drink equals a 12-ounce bottle of beer, a five-ounce glass of wine or a cocktail containing 1.25 ounces of 80-proof liquor.

It's easy to count beer bottles or wine glasses, perhaps, but judging the amount of alcohol in a cocktail is problematic. Take your basic margarita, for example.

"An ounce and a quarter of liquor? That's about right for a standard cocktail," says Chuck Bulnes, general manager of the Blue Agave, "but not for a margarita. If you think about it, a margarita is going to run higher in alcohol content because you've got not only the tequila but also the Cointreau. Maybe Cointreau is only 40 proof, but it's still alcohol. Taking that into account, I'd guess our margaritas run an ounce and a half."

Bulnes plans to send his employees back to school at Texas Alcoholic Beverage Control. "We have to be especially careful to monitor each of our individual customers more closely," he says. "It's an ongoing battle because some of our guests have been drinking somewhere else before they even get here."

Another well-known margarita source, Cabo, had already decided last year to reduce the amount of alcohol in its potent blend. "Our margaritas are now about 40 percent alcohol, I'd guess," says Paul Custis, general manager of the Cabo at Richmond and Greenbriar. In a ten-ounce serving, this translates to four ounces of alcohol, tipping that 120-pound woman over the limit after little more than one drink. "But, whoa, before that?" Custis exclaims, "they used to be really strong."

"I don't know any 120-pound women," says Stan Holt, laughing, "and I'm not sure how much alcohol is in our margaritas now that we make them by the batch." Holt owns the Lupe Tortilla's chain, purveyor of "a lot" of margaritas, he admits. "But seriously, we've had the same policy since the day we opened in 1983. We have a three-drink limit, we don't have a happy hour, we don't cater to the yuppie drinking on the way home from work, and we won't allow you to sit at a table at Lupe Tortilla's and just drink. That's not what we're about."

Holt learned some hard lessons about mixing drinkers with diners at his first restaurant, a steak house much less successful than his current operation. "There, I was in the happy-hour business to survive, because the food service wasn't working out that well," Holt explains. "I realized -- too late -- that what that meant was families wouldn't even set foot in the restaurant until after 7:30 p.m. because the place had a 'hard feel' to it. Grandma didn't want to take Johnny to the restroom in that atmosphere, you know what I mean?"

Lemmon explains that the Greater Houston Restaurant Association was particularly concerned about the impact of the new law on fine-dining establishments known for their extensive wine lists, whose responsible customers might forgo wine with their meals entirely. "A good part of our sales is alcohol to be consumed on premises, but we're not seeing any anxiety yet," says Tom Jensen, general manager at Brennan's. "Over the course of a three-hour dinner, it's certainly not uncommon for our guests to consume three glasses of wine, or a cocktail and two glasses of wine."

Jensen, however, is more worried about martinis than wine. "Any time you sit down in front of a martini, you're talking about serious drinking," says Jensen. "I mean, a martini is just straight alcohol." The standard martini pour at Brennan's is two and a half to three ounces of alcohol, which would count as two drinks on the NHTSA chart. "But many other upscale establishments I can think of are pouring even bigger than that," he says. "It's a fad now, using great big glasses and filling them up to the rim."

For the last ten years, Jensen points out, Brennan's has offered a free taxi ride home to any of its guests who overindulge. The Greater Houston Restaurant Association hopes to expand a similar program to all restaurants. "The new .08 law has given us all more incentive for this," says Lemmon. In partnership with Silver Eagle Distributors and United Cab, the association's "Alert Cab" program offers intoxicated patrons a ride home, at no cost to the restaurant or the customer.

Bottom line on the new law? "The reasons for it are good," says Holt. "The people who are pushing this are not trying to reduce alcohol sales, they're trying to prevent people from getting killed. All in all, if you're not for it, you're just plain greedy."

 
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