What’s So Special About Shaw’s Tavern?
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