The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control looked into Baja Sharkeez this year after learning that a great number of drunk drivers allegedly had their last drink there. (Don Leach, Times Community News)

The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control looked into Baja Sharkeez this year after learning that a great number of drunk drivers allegedly had their last drink there. (Don Leach, Times Community News)

Huntington Beach's top newsmaker of 2011 wasn't a person or an organization, but rather a controlled substance.

Throughout the year, the Independent's front page featured more drinks than a typical bachelor party. Statistics showed Huntington at the top of California cities its size in alcohol-related car accidents. State officials investigated a popular restaurant that had been tied to a large number of DUIs. Residents incited a hearing on whether downtown could have one more liquor-serving license.

At the heart of Huntington's alcohol issues are several questions, and the answers may depend on whom you ask.

Do the downtown statistics represent an out-of-control drinking culture, or just efficient work by police in catching perpetrators? Does the actual number of alcohol licenses — 39, to be exact — make a difference? And however rambunctious the neighborhood may get after midnight, is it still an improvement over its previous self?

"I don't know that it's keeping anyone away from our beaches," developer Robert Koury, who owns properties containing several bars and restaurants, said of the area's reputation. "I see families and people of all walks of life."

To some who have lived in Huntington for decades, the city's modern downtown affluence is little short of miraculous. Skinheads, panhandlers and Fourth of July riots are considered things of the past. Upscale hotels line the beach, while events like the U.S. Open of Surfing make the pier a world-famous destination.

But alongside those sleek structures and packed restaurants are many residents who have trouble sleeping on weekends, as bar patrons flood their neighborhood.

There's one thing on which everyone can probably agree: Huntington Beach, which the Los Angeles Times proclaimed "the 'Jersey Shore' of Orange County" in April, has earned a reputation as more than just Surf City. And many are looking to take action before that reputation gets worse.


'It's a few of them'

The year started with, well, sobering news about the drinking problem in Huntington.

In January, the state Office of Traffic Safety issued a report that the city ranked first among California cities its size in per-capita alcohol-related injury traffic collisions in 2009. The previous four years, Huntington had placed sixth, eighth, seventh and fourth, respectively.

The report found that in 2009, 195 people were killed or injured in alcohol-related collisions in Huntington. On the other hand, the numbers showed that police were slightly more aggressive than the state average in arresting drunk driving suspects.

Lt. Russell Reinhart said due to the concentration, the department automatically protests every license application and withdraws its protest if the applicant agrees to meet several conditions. Those can include curtailing serving hours, prohibiting glass on the balcony or other measures.

Reinhart said the number of licenses makes a difference, but the problem stems mainly from two things: customers and bar employees who both don't know when to say when. The vast majority of venues aren't known trouble spots, he said.

"It's definitely not all the bars and restaurants," said Reinhart, who has served with the department for 25 years. "It's a few of them."

According to a police report, the worst offender around the new year was Baja Sharkeez, which acquired such a reputation that the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control began investigating it in January. Police, who ask DUI suspects where they were drinking before they got in the car, had connected 72 cases to Sharkeez over a 22-month period.

Although owner Ron Newman disputed that the numbers could be linked directly to his restaurant, the city limited Sharkeez's entertainment hours beginning in March.

Other locations police identified over the 22-month period were Hurricanes Bar & Grill, which came in second with 52 drunk drivers, and Killarney Pub & Grill, which was third with 33.

Reinhart said downtown's alcohol problems began to worsen about half a decade ago as the area gained renown as a party haven. Still, he and others can remember a time when the neighborhood was even rowdier.