If a group of West Tisbury restaurateurs are successful the town may join Tisbury and Aquinnah in the ranks of the Island’s formerly dry towns.

It’s been a long time since West Tisbury residents have been able to imbibe at a local establishment. In the mid-19th century, proprietor Sanderson Manter Mayhew held a license for the sale of rum at what is now Alley’s General Store, but for a century and a half West Tisbury has been dry.

All that may change if voters approve a petitioned warrant article at the annual town meeting in April calling for the sale of beer and wine in restaurants with a capacity of 50 people or more, a measure that would affect three West Tisbury restaurants: State Road, Lambert’s Cove Inn and the Plane View at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport.

“This petition comes as no surprise,” said West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel yesterday. “I’ve felt that this was coming to West Tisbury.”

The petition was started by Lambert’s Cove Inn owners Scott Jones and I. Kell Hicklin along with State Road owners Jackson and Mary Kenworth. Mr. Kenworth said that he later contacted Bob Jackson, owner of the Plane View, who was enthusiastic about the idea. The petition is currently circulating at the three restaurants and the owners say that they have received well over the 22 signatures (one per cent of town residents) required to put the question to a vote.

“Our customers have been saying to us for three years now, ‘Aren’t you next? When are you going to do this?’” Lambert’s Cove Inn owner Scott Jones said. “Especially since Tisbury and Aquinnah passed, it just kind of makes sense. It’s time to step into 2011.”

The push for restaurant beer and wine sales in West Tisbury has been spurred by a number of factors, including convenience, confusion and presumably economics.

“We run into this every summer,” said Mr. Jones. “People come to our restaurant without any wine and they’re upset and they don’t know what a dry town is. They’re coming into a fine dining establishment with soft piano music in the background and atmosphere and they have nothing to drink. Then they kind of take it out on us.”

Mr. Jones said the town’s status as a dry town can also be inconvenient for up-Islanders who must drive to Oak Bluffs or Edgartown to buy a bottle for their night out at any one of the up-Island, bring-your-own eateries.

The town’s teetotaling status has also affected the restaurants’ employees. At the Lambert’s Cove Inn Mr. Jones said it is becoming increasingly difficult to hire qualified waitstaff as beer and wine have begun to flow in surrounding towns.

Mr. Kenworth agreed. “I look at my service staff and they could go to work at a restaurant in Edgartown or Oak Bluffs and probably do a little better,” he said yesterday.

He does anticipate that the move will have detractors.

“I think that people would have the same feeling they did when it was trying to go through Tisbury,” Mr. Kenworth said. “I think people are afraid that, oh, it’s going to be a lot of drunks walking around, but quite honestly right now you could come in here with a bottle of vodka, sit down and have a couple vodka tonics, then you can pull out a couple bottles of wine. And we have to manage that.”

Selectman Richard Knabel said he thinks any fears that the introduction of beer and wine would significantly change the town are misplaced.

“To think that somehow or other there would be any sort of dramatic changes other than the size of your tab at the restaurant — I just don’t see that that would happen,” he said. “It didn’t happen in Tisbury; it hasn’t happened in Aquinnah and it won’t happen in West Tisbury in my view.”

Mr. Jones said a beer and wine license would allow the restaurant to exercise more control over the consumption of patrons.

“People who come in with an ice chest of wine and drink it all, then drive off, there’s not a thing I can say about it,” he said. “But if I’m selling it to them — first of all I’m not going to sell them an ice chest full of wine — but if they decide to do that we can certainly stop them. We’ll have more control over the amount they’re served, which is especially important in a residential neighborhood.”

He predicted opposition may come instead from the frugal diner.

“I think the people who are not going to be supportive are the people who still want to be able to bring a less expensive bottle of wine into the restaurant and not pay for a bottle,” he said. Mr. Jones said that the inn is rebounding from a “hiccup year” which saw revenue decline for the first time in six years, though he claims that the sour economy did not influence his decision to pursue the petition.

Even if the voters approve the warrant article, it could be as long as two years before the restaurants are able to serve alcohol. If the article is approved the town will have to petition the state legislature for a home rule amendment to authorize a ballot question, which would then have to be approved by voters in 2012. After that, the town would have to devise license granting regulations and each prospective establishment would have to appear before selectmen for a public hearing to apply for a license.

“They’re perfectly entitled to bring this petition forward and that’s fine,” said Mr. Knabel. “It will definitely guarantee us a quorum at town meeting.”

He concluded: “I don’t have a problem with it. Prohibition ended in 1933 and it’s 2011.”