Tango Sur Owner Plays to Rough Crowd in Bid for Tavern License on Ashland

By Patty Wetli | Monday, February 27, 2012

Neighbors meet to discuss lifting of tavern license moratorium on Ashland Avenue. Credit: Patty Wetli

For 16 years, restaurateur Sergio DiSapio has operated the wildly successful Tango Sur on Southport. So you’d think the Northcenter community would be thrilled to welcome his newest enterprise to their neighborhood. Not exactly.

After spending the past nine months working to rid Ashland Avenue of the trouble spot Centro, residents were lukewarm at best to DiSapio’s bid to acquire property at 3938 N. Ashland Ave., requiring the lifting of a tavern license moratorium in effect on Ashland from Irving Park to Grace.

At a meeting held Feb. 23 at Epiphany Church, concerned neighbors grilled DiSapio regarding his intentions for the the space, attributing crime, break-ins and graffiti to the late-night drinking crowds attracted by Centro, which operated far outside the boundaries of its incidental liquor license.

“I want to hear it from you that I won’t see a promoter, a flyer or an all-you-can-drink special,” said Tom Dunaway, who helped spearhead the successful charge to revoke Centro’s license.

“This is my neighborhood,” responded DiSapio in his own defense. “I have a tavern on Elston (-N-, he also owns Folklore on Division), we’ve never had a fight. I’ve never, ever had a promoter. Ever. I know what that would bring. Whatever I try to do there [3938 N. Ashland], I’ll try to make it nice.”

DiSapio came before the 47th Ward’s Zoning Advisory Committee to obtain a transfer of the existing tavern license at 3938 N. Ashland from the current owners, the Ala Carte Group. Ala Carte purchased the property on Ashland in 2006, aiming to open an extension of its Finn McCool’s Irish pub franchise.

“We changed our business plan,” said Billy McFall, representing Ala Carte. “That property’s been dead for six years. That side of the neighborhood could use a place like Sergio has. We’re not trying to shove this guy down your throat. We’ve done our homework on Sergio. I applaud you guys for going after Centro, but Ala Carte isn’t bringing a problem to the table.”

A tavern license allows a restaurant to serve alcohol until 2 a.m., hours after closing its kitchen, differing from the incidental license obtained by most restaurants, which makes the sale of alcohol secondary to food and requires a place to close an hour after its kitchen calls it a night.

“I don’t think Sergio’s the problem, but the community is leery,” said Andrew Carl, who lives across the street from Centro. “I certainly trust the history of Tango Sur, but I’m still not 100 percent sure why he needs a tavern license.”

Simply put, transferring the existing license from Ala Carte streamlines the process for DiSapio. “If he had to get an incidental license, he’d have to start all over,” explained George Vranas, DiSapio’s attorney, also present at the meeting. Acquiring a new license would set back DiSapio’s timeline six to eight months.

“We want businesses open on Ashland. It helps with property taxes and is good for the neighborhood,” said Jim Poole, community specialist in the 47th Ward Office. “I don’t want to put Centro on Sergio’s back.”

Residents’ main worry: lifting the tavern moratorium for DiSapio would open the floodgates for less scrupulous operators.

“It doesn’t mean it’s a free for all, there are still restrictions in place,” Poole said. Any new tavern application would come before the Zoning Committee and public comment would be solicited. In 12 months, after being lifted for DiSapio’s transfer, the moratorium automatically goes back into effect. In the interim, Poole vowed, “I will scrutinize the living daylight out of any application.”

As the meeting progressed, sentiment seemed to shift toward a grudging acceptance of DiSapio, whose tentative concept is to serve small-plate, tapas-style food, high-end wines and craft beers, with Argentinian music playing in the background.

George Clemen, manager of Keenan O’Reilly’s Pub, 3916 N. Ashland Ave., noted that he’s seen numerous “fly-by-night Board of Trade guys” tour the Ala Carte property as prospective buyers over the years.

“One of the things about that property is there’s nothing in there,” said Clemen. “You’re not going to be in business Day 1. It needs a lot of work.” To him, DiSapio’s willingness to take on that challenge indicates a serious commitment.

Dunaway, perhaps the most vocal opponent of DiSapio’s application, felt more at ease after hearing the space has a maximum occupancy of 98 people and would close at 2 a.m., not the 4 a.m. he had feared.

After all the effort he put into ousting Centro, Dunaway said he and fellow residents want to make sure the right businesses set up shop in the community.

“The neighborhood will support local businesses,” he said, “as long as it’s someone who’s invested in the neighborhood.”

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