Apparently heeding the concerns of some North Laurel residents, the Howard County Board of License Commissioners unanimously rejected an application for a liquor license for the Stage One Grill in North Laurel.
Though the restaurant bills itself as a family-style establishment, the location's previous life as a strip club came back to haunt it in the person of Bibinkumar M. Aghera, one of five co-owners of Stage One Grill, which is on the southbound side of U.S. 1 next to the Ramada Inn in southeastern Howard County.
Aghera was also a co-owner of the site's previous occupant, Good Guys Bar and Grill, which, as the county's only all-nude dance club until April 1995, was often embroiled in controversy with its neighbors and in court disputes with county and state regulators.
"That's part of the history, and because of that history, that's why there are questions about Stage One," said C. Vernon Gray, who chairs the board that consists of the five members of the County Council.
Local residents made clear that they feared that a liquor license was the first step toward turning Stage One into another strip joint.
Aghera denied that he had that in mind, telling the board that he was only a minority owner of Good Guys and was not in charge of the bar.
"I'm aware of the violations, but I wasn't involved in the day-to-day operations," Aghera said. "Now, I'll be overseeing the operation."
But board members remained unconvinced.
"You remind me of the pianist in that old western saloon," Gray said. "You were just playing the piano, and you didn't know what was going on upstairs, right?"
Member Darrel E. Drown noted that Aghera was arrested twice in 1992 for failing to appear for two court dates regarding a traffic violation.
Aghera's explanation, that he forgot about the court dates, infuriated Drown.
"And you're asking us to give you the responsibility of checking on the day-to-day operations and checking the identifications of your patrons?" Drown asked. "We don't want to see you coming before us saying that you forgot to check IDs. That's a weak excuse."
Tom Flynn, president of the North Laurel Civic Association, applauded the board's decision.
"This board had been fooled once," Flynn said, noting that owners of Good Guys had repeatedly denied allowing nude dancing at their bar. "Things like that trouble me very much."
Stage One Grill opened June 8 without much fanfare. The 3,139-square-foot family-style restaurant, which is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, seats 125 and serves salads, sandwiches and seafood.
Theresa L. Miller, the restaurant's general manager, testified that business has been slow because the restaurant does not have a liquor license.
"We have had a lot of people come in and ask for an alcoholic beverage and leave the premises because we could not offer them one," Miller said. "We would like to be able to offer it as an accommodation to their meals."
But most of the hearing centered on the restaurant's connection to Good Guys. Aghera is general manger of the adjacent Ramada Inn, which owns the building and leases it to Stage One. He declined to comment on the decision.
Lee Fowler, whose wife, Molly, is one of the co-owners, said they plan to reapply for a liquor license.
"We intend to put together a package to show that we are not going to be a strip club," Fowler said. "We intend to be an asset to the community."
Pub Date: 9/12/97