David Usborne: Our Man In New York

Now drinkers get word of warning ... from the urinal

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A random discussion began the other night about when DWI became DUI in America and why the change.

This has nothing to do with airport codes, but rather what Mel Gibson read on his recent charge sheet. "Driving While Intoxicated" apparently didn't really cut it, so these days it's "Driving Under the Influence".

For most Manhattanites, this is a matter of mere hypothetical interest because they don't own cars. But wait; New York is the new nanny-no-smoking-or-eating-trans-fat-city and so it is that soon we will have our own version of DUI.

I am talking about Dining Under the Influence, a shocking habit that should be firmly discouraged at all times. You think I am joking. I fear it's just the latest manifestation of this country's new scolding culture, where there can never be too many rules or regulations when it comes to saving us from ourselves.

Rosa Mexicano on 19th Street was until recently competing to be my favourite restaurant within walking distance of home. The menu offers more kinds of margarita cocktails than Moctezuma had jewels. But don't get carried away, folks: the servers were recently ordered to report any customer to the management ordering more than three drinks within 90 minutes and politely to tell them no.

Rosa's is not alone. Pampano, an even fancier place in Midtown co-owned by the chef Richard Sandoval and the opera legend Placido Domingo has a slightly different approach. Hosts of private or corporate parties there must agree to spend more on food than on booze.

Politicians are partly to blame for this forced sobriety. Stamping out unhealthy behaviour seems to win votes, never mind that it means treating us like infants. (Certainly, the smoking ban did no harm to Mayor Bloomberg.) Most recently, the cops here have been cracking down on bars and clubs which fail to screen out underage drinkers, often closing them down by court order for weeks at a time. To avoid trouble, they are obliged to invest in expensive machines to scan driving licences. For anyone not yet at the drinking age of 21 this is tiresome news indeed.

Lawyers have had a part in this also. The shift towards civic responsibility among purveyors of food and drink can be traced to a 2005 court case in New Jersey when a man left an American football game at Giants Stadium completely sloshed and crashed into another car leaving a two-year-old girl paralysed. A court ordered the bar operator at Giants Stadium to pay her $135m in damages.

The latest target is bar cars on trains. Across the land they are being phased out lest whiskey-soaked commuters pass out on their way home. In days past commuting to New York from Connecticut on Metro North trains, the bar cars were all that made the return journey tolerable. But now an MTA director, Mitch Pally, is proposing that they be scrapped too.

Look also at New Mexico which this month required all airlines to apply for state liquor licences before serving booze on flights to and from its territory. Three carriers have declined, preferring to purge all supplies from their planes. As in Jersey, this came after a man disembarked drunk from a flight to Albuquerque and later smashed into another car, killing five people.

But New Mexico is also waging a war against drinking in terrestrial bars. Its latest drink-drive campaign really takes the cake, the urinal cake. The state is distributing deodorising tablets that are motion-sensitive and begin to lecture patrons in bars about drinking too much as they innocently approach to take a leak between beers. They will hear a woman's voice purring: "Hey, big guy. Having a few drinks? Think you had one too many? Then it's time to call a cab or call a sober friend for a ride home." The tablets sign off with this final thought: "Remember, your future is in your hand". The surprise of a talking trough would certainly be enough to interrupt my stream, if not my drinking binge.

They are at once ingenious and insidious. (And also a tad sexist, since women's toilets, best I know, have no use for urinal cakes, apparently implying that they are more responsible drinkers than we are.) On the one hand, however much men in New Mexico dislike them, these gizmos are likely to prove entirely tamperproof. I mean who is going to reach down and steal them? But in a culture already saturated by advertising propaganda, you have to ask if there are any boundaries left. What's next, talking condoms?

Rosa Mexicano and other restaurants in New York, meanwhile, might look into investing in cocktail glasses that emit electric shocks if raised to the lips more than three times in an hour. Better still, they would explode without warning on the patron's shirt, ensuring maximum public humiliation.

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