Right after work on Fridays, The Fox and Fiddle on Main Street attracts customers eager to eat and drink. But later in the evening, there's a lineup to get into the "cocktail lounge" portion of the Exchange District establishment while tables sit empty on the "restaurant" side of a barrier that demarcates two separate licensed areas.
"This is frustrating when you're trying to run a business," said co-owner Ryan Daneault, who opened The Fox and Fiddle last fall in a former office space on the main floor of the 108-year-old Bank of Toronto building.
"Customers don't understand why they can't sit. You have to tell them about the food-alcohol ratio," he said, referring to one of the widely disliked aspects of an obsolete liquor-licensing regime that will be modernized.
On Wednesday, the Selinger government tabled legislation to replace the province's Byzantine array of 12 separate liquor licences with a simplified trio of rules -- one each governing alcohol manufacturers, retailers and serving establishments.
Gone will be arcane regulations demanding live-music venues have at least 200 seats. Gone will be a logic-defying prohibition against DJs and other forms of electronic music.
In their place will be a single set of rules for all alcohol-serving establishments, which will be allowed to open for the same hours -- and won't have to tell provincial authorities how much food they sell in relation to booze.
What this means is Manitoba's restaurants and bars may be able to tear up the barriers between their restaurants and lounges as soon as 2014, when anyone older than 18 should be able to walk into any licensed establishment and order a beer without a plate of fries they do not intend to eat.
"Some of the legislation that existed created unnecessary expense," said Scott Jocelyn, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association, which supports the province's move to blow up an alcohol-licensing regime that dates back to the 1950s.
In January, Dave Chomiak, the minister responsible for liquor and gaming, pledged to replace the prohibition-style liquor-control regime with a set of rules modelled after the province's more laissez-faire gaming regulations.
Pending legislative approval, more types of businesses will be allowed to serve alcohol, including hair salons and spas. Advertising restrictions will be eased and alcohol service may be allowed 24 hours a day for special events -- and maybe even out in the open, tailgate-style, in the 11-block sports, hospitality and entertainment district (SHED) surrounding MTS Centre.
"We'll have more entertainment and more flexibility," Chomiak said at a news conference at The Forks. "At the same time, we're going to do much more risk assessment. Booze cans and party houses are going to get more attention. It's a balancing act."
Once regulations are in place, possibly by the end of this year, they will be phased in during a two-year period that will allow existing licence-holders to adjust to the new regime, Chomiak said.
Manitoba's hoteliers, once reticent about these changes, are now fully in support, said Jim Baker, president and CEO of the Manitoba Hotel Association. The new rules will retain the hotels' near-monopoly on beer vending while exposing their beverage rooms to competition from smaller, stand-alone venues.
Manitoba's music industry also supports the changes, as the end of multiple licences will allow small live-music venues to serve alcohol without the expense of running a restaurant or a 200-seat cabaret. "Anything that has the potential to open up opportunities for local and touring artists is a good thing," said Kevin Walters, president of Manitoba Music and the chairman of the 2014 Juno host committee.
But the changes also have critics. Melody Bodnarchuk, president of MADD Winnipeg, called them a backwards step that could increase the number of intoxicated-driving incidents and even deaths on Manitoba roads.
She's worried patrons will no longer be obliged to eat while drinking and wondered whether women having a glass of wine or two at the spa will think to name a designated driver.
Toughening the rules on inebriated driving while loosening the rules on liquor sales means the Selinger government is "sucking and blowing at the same time," said Bodnarchuk, whose nephew died in a drunk-driving accident. "The rules need to get tougher, tighter, not looser."
Conservative gaming and alcohol critic Cliff Cullen, meanwhile, raised a red flag about any special consideration for the SHED around the MTS Centre. "It's pretty clear we no longer have a level playing field," he said, referring to downtown Winnipeg.
Daneault and his business partner Michael Leger, however, are eager to seat patrons wherever they like in The Fox and Fiddle.
"This is going to be great for business. It's going to change the way industry is run," he said.
-- with files from Mary Agnes Welch