City Desk

What’s So Special About Shaw’s Tavern?

Shaw's Tavern: What's So Special?

Shaw's Tavern owner Abbas Fathi shut down the restaurant moments before service last Friday (laying off his staff a day early and prompting chef John Cochran to resign in protest). Since then, it's set off a ferocious back-and-forth over what went wrong on D.C. and national blogs alike.

While Matt Yglesias and Megan McArdle argue that the problem is the District's liquor laws (or the existence of liquor laws in general, if you're a libertarian), Geoff Hatchard and Jaime Fearer disagree on Greater Greater Washington, saying that such arguments "ignore management's responsibility for the pickle they're in, and instead push the idea that the city should turn a blind eye to the situation rather than acknowledge any infractions."

Shaw’s couldn't get a liquor license yet because of a charity event where liquor was served without the necessary permits; allegedly, former manager Steve May forged documents to get city liquor distributors to sell them the booze even though they weren't licensed. Authorities are expected to render a decision on a permanent liquor license within 90 days.

The fight here, though, turns the usual neighborhood vs. restaurant dynamic upside down. The problems with liquor licensing that restaurants typically face have to do with neighborhood opposition. From Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont to Big Bear Cafe in Bloomingdale, winning over Advisory Neighborhood Commissions can often an uphill battle. But Shaw’s Tavern was almost universally embraced from the moment its presence was announced.

Which may be why there’s a sense of entitlement being projected from the residents who are so pressed to have this particular restaurant exempted from the rules.

But it's not clear that Shaw's Tavern is special. There are other restaurants nearby where you can sit down and eat—admittedly, not fancy gastropub fare—and several of them serve alcohol, and have managed to do so with few problems. The tavern isn't that far from restaurant-heavy zones on U Street and 14th Street NW. And Shaw's has had multiple issues since before it opened. They didn't even have a certificate of occupancy when they announced a late July opening date (after pushing back that date multiple times from June).

The only thing remarkable about Shaw's Tavern, in fact, appears to be how poorly they managed the process of starting a business. Which may deserve some bemused sympathy. But it sure doesn't seem to merit a different set of rules.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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  • http://greatergreaterwashington.org/ David Alpert

    The point is definitely right about ANCs and neighbors being the usual opposition to liquor licenses, though it's worth noting that for Hank's recent expansion, the ANC was strongly in support, and it was just a group of residents that was fighting the plan. 2B, the ANC in Dupont, has by and large been quite supportive of many recent changes in the neighborhood.

  • http://meganmcardle.theatlantic.com Megan McArdle

    For starters, I am generally opposed to liquor licensing regimes, not just in this case, as I tried to make clear in the post. I also thought the oposition to BBC was chickenshit, and I oppose the gentrifiers who try to use liquor licensing to shut down the liquor stores they don't like because poor people use them.

    Another point I'd make is that while for you it's not that far to other restaurants; for those of us who already live a 15 minute walk from Shaw's tavern, it's kind of a big hike. So yeah, kind of a big deal for those of us whose current sit-down choices are pizza at Rustik, or whatever snack BBC is serving for dinner.

    But mostly it's that while in theory 90 days doesn't seem like that long, in practice, it's a death sentence for a business which is so heavily dependent on brand and human capital. This seems out of proportion to the offense, and stupid in a recession. Shaw's was probably kind of special to the people who had jobs there and now don't, the owners who have just lost a bundle of money that they probably care about, and the people who now have to drive or take a bus to go out to dinner.

    Of course restaurants go out of business every day. But that doesn't mean that it's okay to put more of them out of business, for little apparent gain to public well-being.

  • MC

    This is the most balanced and well written article I've seen on the subject. Excellent work, Ms. Hilton.

  • Neil

    Thanks Megan. Hilton has no clue about availability of convenient sit-down restaurants to residents of Bloomingdale and Ledroit. 14th St NW? Really?

    But apparently it's good policy to put around 30 people out of work and kill a restaurant that had a an eager and waiting market in order to teach some kind of object lesson in the harshest possible way.

  • Shani Hilton

    Megan, I don't fully disagree with you on some of the problems with liquor licensing (though I'm not against it on principle). But Shaw's Tavern never ever at all had a license -- they weren't given a death sentence, they are being appropriately reviewed for what looks to be a bad error in judgment. That's not ABRA's fault, unless your problem is that ABRA exists (in which case, this is why you're a libertarian and I'm not, which is okay!).

    Neil -- I lived at 4th and Florida until about a week ago, and let's see, within 4 blocks there's Beau Thai, Thai Crossing, Red Toque, Big Bear Cafe (which serves dinner and booze now), and Rustik. Almost all of these sit-down places, except for Thai Crossing, opened or started serving food in the last year. It stands to reason that Shaw's Tavern won't be the last restaurant to open in the neighborhood, and if it fails, it's very likely better management will come in and lease the space. Again, I ask, what makes Shaw's so special? Is it the food? It must be the food!

  • Mike Madden

    6th and Florida—where Shaw's Tavern is—is only eight blocks from 14th and U. It's only three blocks from 9th and U, where there are quite a few sit-down restaurants and/or bars that serve food. Hardly seems like a dire shortage of available restaurants near the tavern.

  • shawchica

    Hilton clearly doesn't live in the area. Having lived a few blocks east of shaw tavern for 8 years and watching them transform the building from a mess to what it now is I would say Shaw Tavern has the potential to be very special. Unfortunately is may once again become a decaying building (I hope not). Having a local sit down place to both eat good food and have a drink is desperately needed in the neighborhood. It seems that Mays' dishonesty (he also has been the cause of problems with the Firehouse project at R and North Capital) is the biggest issue here. He is no longer involved with Shaw Tavern and while I think they should be punished (a fine?) For the licensing issue at this point the neighborhood is now suffering for this mistake.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    Megan: You knew there were no sit-down, white-tablecloth restaurants in Eckington when you bought there, right? I don't see why you're using the "it's a long way to go to eat" excuse in this case. It would be the same as me complaining about lack of options in Trinidad. I knew what we had and didn't when I bought there.

    (By the way, there are multiple restaurant options that are closer to your house in NoMa now, from Five Guys, to Watershed, to Roti. Don't just look west in your quest for food.)

  • Chris Shott

    The most remarkable thing about Shaw's Tavern to me, besides the mismanagement and the whole tavern-without-booze thing that resulted, was the unusual bar food. Chef John Cochran got rid of the fryer and cooked virtually everything in the pizza oven. All the sides were vegan-friendly. Definitely not your typical gastropub.

  • CCCA Prez

    I don't recall anyone I know suggesting that if Shaw's Tavern broke the rules it should be exempted. But I reckon most people, given the overwhelming public and ANC support, would have preferred that instead of denying a license, the ABRA board could use some latitude and levy some appropriate fine, and allow the business to operate on some sort of probation.

    I guess none of Shaw's ANC Commissioners were contacted to comment on this article. That's a pity; that's part of what ANC's are elected to do -- speak for the community. The Georgetown Dish usually contacts ANC Commissioners when writing articles related to their actions or opinions. An event license (or 2 or 3) supported by the ANC, in advance of a full license, might have prevented this unfortunate catastrophe.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    But it sure doesn't seem to merit a different set of rules.

    No, but it does provide a good opportunity to see if the rules we do have actually make sense.

  • Brian Smith

    Geoff...hold on a second. Saying that someone made the choice to live in a neighborhood w/o quality restaurant choices should be forced to live with it or look elsewhere is kind of ridiculous. You and I are both homeowners who have helped to fight for other development in Shaw...why should this be different?

    I agree May made a mistake and for that they should pay...but I completely agree with Megan in the fact that 90 days is a death sentence.

    I have watched business establishment after business establishment get the jerk around by the DC Government on a daily basis and living in a rapidly changing neighborhood with constant bureaucratic horseshit will eventually screw Shaw. I realize that DCRA has a role that is important but maybe if they focused on their ENTIRE role there would be less of the bullshit (like what Seth at Red Toque went through) that makes small business owners look elsewhere...

    There is a middle ground on this and hopefully the owner finally gets the fact that scrapping the whole thing is a BAD idea...work with the community and hopefully we can solve this together.

  • Brian Smith

    And I realize that ABRA is the issue here but if you look at the issues that start with DCRA you will see that this is a much larger discussion than just the liquor license. If DCRA took as much time dealing with vacant houses owned by churches and the Feds we would live in a very different neighborhood.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    Brian: I'm not saying that we should have to 'deal with it' regarding the lack of restaurants in a particular neighborhood. What I am saying is that one needs to recognize the present situation when you move to a place, and then work to affect change if that's what one wants to see. You and many others fought like hell to help pull Vegetate and Queen of Sheba through that mess on 9th Street years ago. I've been to multiple hearings and given testimony in favor of places like Big Bear and Jimmy Valentine's.

    Writing about what we want on a blog is one thing, but if one really wants to see better stuff in the neighborhood, you have to get your hands dirty and get down in the weeds. I haven't seen evidence that Megan has done so.

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    With a city where more than a 1/3 of folks can't read past a 3rd grade level who cares about this?

  • Drez

    ABRA isn't the issue fraud and re less disregard for other's livelihood (the distributor employees people to) is.
    It's disingenuous to hold a regulatory schema accountable for someone's bad-faith failure to follow it.

  • http://ardvaark.net Brian Vargas

    A 90 day review may indeed be a "death sentence" for business reasons, but the ABC Board is required to make careful factual determinations on this issue, and that process takes time. The alcohol laws are ponderous and conservative for a variety of historical and practical reasons - but those are the laws. If you don't like the process they require, petition your councilmembers to change them.

    Imagine for a moment if the ABC Board had held a hearing the next week and quickly decided - as is their prerogative - that the owner of Shaw's Tavern acted in bad faith and is not worthy of the privilege of a liquor license. The wrath of the entire city would have come down on them for denying due process.

    And if they had quickly ruled in favor of the owner, then that hardly constitutes a fair shake for the vast majority of licensees who properly obtain their licenses, follow the liquor law, and don't forge anything, to boot. Indeed, it would almost seem an invitation to flout the law. Did popular restaurant X get caught selling to a minor? No problem! Just rile up the community outrage!

    Instead, the ABC Board as an independent body is taking the time to hear all sides and make a reasoned determination. This is a self-inflicted wound on Shaw's Tavern, and if it cannot survive long enough for the Board to even make a ruling, according to the process set out by law, then blame for that falls in only one place.

    (Also, please note that it is the *ABC Board* that has 90 days to review; they are a different entity than ABRA. The board is an independent body from ABRA, responsible for adjudicating liquor issues. ABRA is responsible for administrating the liquor laws.)

  • http://meganmcardle.theatlantic.com Megan McArdle

    Shani, I'm not sure why it's relevant whether they had the license or not. The owners invested a lot of money in the project and hired people; now that money has probably evaporated along with the jobs. Whether the project was killed by having their license rescinded or delayed seems irrelevant to me. Indeed, had they never hired anyone, but had to give up on a great project that then didn't happen, that would still be a harm.

    My argument is that the harm this causes is not proportional to the harm it prevents. And so far, no one's shared with me what that harm is--other than the circular "if you don't harshly punish people who don't obey the rules, people might not obey the rules".

  • J.T.

    Re: NoMa dining options - Potbelly and Roti close at 7 PM. Perfect Pita closes at 3 PM. I think Tynan closes at 8. Of the new NoMa dining options, only Watershed, Five Guys, and 7-11 have neighborhood-friendly hours right now. That will change as the more residential comes online in NoMa, but it's for now, it is not the best weeknight or weekend destination.

  • Drez

    My argument is that the harm this causes is not proportional to the harm it prevents = Too Big to Fail = Fail

  • Robert

    My undestanding is that May, an employee, is at fault. Granted, ownership has ultimate responsibility. I wonder, however, whether a national chain opening in the neighborhood, whose employee acted wrongly like May did, would be left twisting in the wind for up to 90 days. I suspect not, but rather think ABRA or the boad would impose some penalty and get on with allowing them to open.

  • SW

    This article is spot on - the best analysis of the situation done yet. Well done.

  • David

    I don't buy the argument that they should be looked up as different due to the fact that they had hired staff and invested money which is now "lost". Did the owners manage the disaster of Steve May? Were they involved enough in the people they hired to know what they were doing? Perhaps if they were paying closer attention to the fine print they would have known the procedures and what you can and can't do. I would think if someone invested so heavily in a project then they would be diligent in obtaining all information about running their business.

  • JohnDC

    While I'll agree that there are other options about 4 blocks west, a lot of us are already walking west quite a bit to get there.

    And yes we bought a place we knew didn't have sitdown resturants, but we can still be disappointed that one of the first places may not work out.

  • Anonymous

    The owner of Shaw's tavern made two critical business mistakes:

    1. hiring Steve May

    2. thinking the business could open and stay afloat for regular business without the license. he should have just kept the doors closed until he had a license in hand.

    But back to the question of why Shaw's Tavern was so special...at least to me.

    Being one of those far flung NE residents, my largest disappointment that Shaw's Tavern failed so hard and fast relates less to the tavern itself than Steve May's affiliation with the EC12 Firehouse project. The neighborhood has long-awaited the renovation of this important anchor on North Capitol Street which could have the potential to spur neighborhood investment along the N.Cap Corridor.

    Yeah, I can go to H Street or U street, but I live N.Cap. My fear is that Shaw's demise will result in yet another death sentence for EC12.

  • dede

    The thing here is that the neighborhood was looking forward to something, and now their hopes are broken.

    What makes this place special? It was a promise of active life on this stretch of florida avenue that is primarily the domain of a shit ton of cars, some pedestrians and not much else. the place was the promise of eyes on the street, a beautiful wall of windows, and some outdoor seating in an area that many around the city still consider bad or "sketchy". it was the hope of economic development. As Anonymous sep 2 mentions, it is also the promise of the same things for North Capitol and the Firehouse. Residents here have been hoping for something to happen there for 10 years. this team was the first real opportunity. another hope broken. you may be just trying to make a point by asking "what's so special" but you don't know the neighborhood at all if your question is serious.

    Megan McArdle's point was the the punishment doesn't fit the crime. And let's be clear, everyone knows they did something wrong. whether it is the alleged forgery ( which i believe) or the CofO issue, or both, they violated the law. To be strung along for 90 days is insane. this is not a situation where they would get their liquor license in 90 days, this is why they get told if they can have it or not in 90 days. Any of you that find any sense of justice or government working properly in that are not in your right mind.

    Like Hilton, I too, find ABRA to be worth keeping, but honestly people it is a broken system right now. Steven May fuckd up. He was canned. ABRA still needs to find out if Fahti is culpable.

    So yeah, Shaw's Tavern caused the problems they are in, no doubt about it. we can all point to the various stupid things they did. They still deserve fair treatment in the review process. Why should that take 90 days? Considering the overwhelming community support, this is the DC government needlessly stalling. it's not right.

  • Janet

    Anonymous and Dede you seem so certain that the tavern employees did something purposefully wrong. How and where did you get the information that let you arrive at this decision? Could you point me to something other than blog posts and individual opinions? I requested and read the entire transcript of the hearing from the transcription company.

    I just don’t see how everyone is arriving at this conclusion that they did something deceitful! Is everyone just assuming that DC employees only investigate guilty party's? Why do some of you automatically assume the ABRA investigator is telling the truth and that the silence from the employees signifies guilt? This would not be the first time, this week even, that a city employee embellished his work in order to perpetrate a fact that does not exist. In fact this city is filled with corrupt politicians and corrupt city employees. Isn't the former Chairman of D.C.'s alcohol control board Charles Brodsky still under investigation for basically moderating pay to play scenarios within the agency?

    I don’t see how all of these negative posters could jump to the conclusion that the tavern employees are responsible to follow rules they apparently weren't even told about. According to the hearing information the only employees in the restaurant at the time of the events in questions with any restaurant management experience was the chef! The same chef that now bashes the owners and former managers in news articles!

    In any case I have ever worked on, the first question is where is the motive? This organization gave away product for no profit. They actually spent a small fortune to give this stuff away according to the owner's testimony at the ABRA hearing. So if you want to believe that there is automatically a guilty party don’t you have to have a motive?

    I would say at best this was a mistake on the owners part not to press ABRA for the stipulated license that the ANC voted to give them in April according to the ANC 2C website. Although many restauranteurs have made claims in recent articles that they got their licenses in days after an ANC vote of support, so I am unsure as to how ABRA determines who gets fast turn around and who gets slow ones. Maybe that should be the next investigation by the Attorney General's Office. Oops I forgot, they have like 35 open cases against sitting politicians and current city employees to go through first. Looks like they'll have their hands full for a while.

    I look forward to the article that gives the owners side of the story, when will they finally take the spotlight away from former employees and City Paper muck rakers and tell the other side?

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