Tavern on the Wean: Can Shaw’s Tavern Survive Long Without a Liquor License?
“How long do you think they can last like this?” my dining companion asks. We’re seated at the bar at Shaw’s Tavern. Our pint glasses are overflowing. With ice water.
It’s Thursday around 6 p.m. At any other tavern in the District, this would be considered happy hour. But the vibe here is rather sad. The place is practically deserted, except for us and a whole crew of courteous black-clad servers waiting to take our orders and refill our cups—but not from the beer taps, all of which are shrouded in ominous black plastic wrap. Were it not for the smooth jazz gently playing in the background, you might hear the crickets.
As we pick through our ratatouille on grits, soft-shell crab on butter-bean puree, and three-cheese pizza with onions, my friend keeps commenting about her unquenched thirst: “Leave it to you to ask a gal to dinner somewhere where she can’t drink.”
Another couple soon enters the eatery but, after a short chat with the host, quickly turns away. The pair barely unfurled their umbrellas before backing out. It’s a scene that lately has played out several times a night at this would-be gastropub.
Guests come in. Guests find out there’s no “pub” to speak of. Guests walk out—no matter how good the “gastro” part might be.
The problem: The restaurant has been at odds with city liquor regulators since before it even opened earlier this month. Cited for serving alcohol at a handful of private pre-opening parties without the proper permits, Shaw’s now finds that its pending liquor license is very much in jeopardy. At a hearing on Aug. 10, a city inspector testified about documents allegedly doctored by a tavern manager, which were used to illegally obtain alcohol from wholesalers for pre-opening festivities. The restaurant’s lawyer didn’t contest the charges and blamed the whole mess on “hiring mistakes.”
For now, that means Florida Avenue NW is host to the District’s only 100 percent dry tavern. Sometimes the host is up front about the new restaurant’s drinking limitations. That’s when many guests turn around. Sometimes, though, it’s up to the server to break the news about the booze. “How ’bout an ice-cold beer?” asks a gentleman at a neighboring table one evening. “Any day now,” his server sighs. Invariably, someone asks, “What’s your thinking about bringing alcohol in?” Of course, that’s not allowed, either. Not without a separate permit.
“I’m surprised that so many people won’t go out to eat without a glass of wine or a beer,” says head chef John Cochran. “I mean, I shouldn’t be.”
Cochran, 45, spent eight years running the kitchen at the old Rupperts restaurant, across 7th Street NW from where the Washington Convention Center now stands. In 1997, his seasonal fare earned him Best New Chef accolades from Food & Wine magazine. But beyond some consulting gigs and a brief recent stint at Marlow & Sons in Brooklyn, he hadn’t spent much time in a professional kitchen since Rupperts closed in 2002. He took the job at Shaw’s in the hope of mostly staying in the kitchen and out of the spotlight. “I really just wanted to be anonymous and just cook and people would be like, ‘This is pretty good food for a pub,’” he explains.
So much for that. For the moment, Cochran’s cooking is the only thing going for the place.
“I had planned a killer wine list,” the chef says wistfully of his vision for the menu. “I thought the place would operate on three levels: (1) a place to drink beer and eat burgers. (2) a quasigastropub, fine-dining, French-café type of place where I could do some interesting food and pair it with wine, and (3) specialty cocktails.”
At present, none of those levels is working out as planned. No beer. No wine. No cocktails. And, to a large extent, no customers. Cochran points to an estimated crowd of around 60 on a recent Saturday evening. But on most nights I’ve visited, the 86-seat dining room is serving about a dozen patrons at a time. At best. “Without the liquor license,” he says, “we’ve been closing around 10 p.m.”
The previous manager has since moved on, leaving Cochran, now both the chef and acting GM, in charge of the entire boozy restaurant concept. Minus the booze.
“The weight of everything riding on the food is a heavy weight to bear, man,” he says. “Especially when I’m trying to keep it at a neighborhood-tavern type of price point.”
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For a hooch-oriented operation that’s clearly run afoulof the law, the struggling tavern has attracted a rather unusual level of community support. One neighbor has started a petition drive, urging city officials to show some mercy: “Don’t kill Shaw’s Tavern!” the appeal goes. “Shaw needs more successful restaurants!”
If this were, say, a corner liquor store hawking singles in spite of city prohibitions, you can bet the gentrifying class of locals would be petitioning against the place. But a nice sit-down restaurant offering candlelight and silverware wrapped in cloth napkins has a much better shot at redemption, particularly in a part of town so underserved by proper eating establishments. And especially when the guy cooking in the back has an obvious fan on the liquor board.
During Shaw’s recent hearing, Nick Alberti, the interim chairman of the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, devoted nearly five minutes of the public meeting to reminiscing about Cochran’s old spot, Rupperts. Alberti spent “quite a few New Year’s Eves there,” he said before questioning the chef at length about the history of the former eatery, its vegetarian-friendly menu, and even certain staffers. “This has nothing to do with the hearing, but since I have you and it’s this late...” is how the acting chairman justified the digression.
Alberti’s familiarity with Cochran’s cooking might seem like a good sign. But maybe not. The chef points out that the board member also complained about Rupperts’ prices. “I was like, ‘Come on, man, it was the ’90s. It was OK back then,’” Cochran says.
The board, in recess until Sept. 14, is expected to rule on Shaw’s lingering liquor issues within 90 days—a virtual lifetime in an industry in which some places don’t make it six months even with the financial benefit of booze sales. Generally speaking, liquor is where eateries make ends meet. In fact, to maintain some semblance of balance, licensed restaurants in the District are required by law to demonstrate that at least 45 percent of their gross annual revenue come from actual food sales—a threshold some operators struggle with. For now, Shaw’s Tavern owner Abbas Fathi won’t have that problem.
In the interim, would-be guests who balk at the prospect of dry dining are missing out on some unusual bar food, including fresh-baked breads and roasted vegetables galore.
The first thing Cochran did after taking charge is ditch the former GM’s beloved deep fryer. “One day, I pulled the fryer out of the kitchen and stuck it upstairs,” he says. “The owner was, like, ‘Why is the fryer upstairs?’ And I’m like, ‘We don’t need it.’”
Cochran’s take on fries, if you can call them that (and he doesn’t—“baked oven spuds,” is how they’re described on the menu) are prepared in the tavern’s shiny new 600-degree pizza oven.
Soft-shell crabs are similarly spared the breading and scalding oil, and fans of traditional pub grub might miss the greasy golden coating. They’ll also miss the burger, which Cochran also recently scrapped.
Shaw’s various pizzas might soon suffer the same fate. “I’m not quite sure how much longer that will last,” the chef says, noting his displeasure with the mixed white and whole wheat dough, which came out a bit too charred on the bottom during my visits. “I almost feel that it’s wrong to call it a pizza,” he says, “it’s much more like some sort of flatbread.” For the moment, classify the crusty pies under future considerations. “It’s good bar food for later on,” the chef says.
Cochran’s best efforts tend to fall into two categories: seafood and produce, which speaks to the chef’s overall MO. “Vegetable-heavy, with protein on the side,” as he puts it.
The watermelon soup is lightly sweet and refreshing, albeit camouflaged under a pile of peppery arugula. When it first arrived, I mistook it for a salad. All six side dishes currently listed on the seasonally rotating menu are vegan-friendly, including a plate of oven-roasted okra and sweet potatoes that even this skeptical omnivore recommends over the baked spuds.
Cochran’s rockfish and halibut, served in similar fashion on separate nights over black rice, corn, leeks, and stewed tomatoes, are two of the tastiest fish dishes I’ve eaten all year. The chef, who seems hesitant to season his food with anything beyond grape-seed oil, salt, and pepper, modestly credits his seafood supplier Jim Chambers of Prime Seafood.
Perhaps the most apropos item on the entire menu, though, is Cochran’s homemade dark-chocolate sorbet with freshly chopped figs—served in, of all things, a chilled martini glass.
Hey, the guy had to find some use for the things.
Maybe one day soon he can replace the creamy treat with a creamy drink instead.
“If everything can fall into place before Labor Day, then we’re good to go,” he says. “It might be on a wish and a prayer. But who knows?” CP
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
Additional reporting by Megan Arellano
Shaw’s Tavern, 520 Florida Ave. NW, (202) 518-4092
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