Young and Hungry

Tavern on the Wean: Can Shaw’s Tavern Survive Long Without a Liquor License?

Shaw’s Tavern: D.C. Restaurant Tries to Survive With No 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.

Shaw’s Tavern: D.C. Restaurant Tries to Survive With No Liquor License

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.”

Shaw’s Tavern: D.C. Restaurant Tries to Survive With No Liquor License

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.”

* * *

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.

Shaw’s Tavern: D.C. Restaurant Tries to Survive With No Liquor License

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.

Shaw’s Tavern: D.C. Restaurant Tries to Survive With No Liquor License

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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  • Jane

    I love how many vegetables they offer and the preparation is pretty good, too. It's a beautiful space. This place deserves to hold out a little longer, if it can...

  • Amanda brookefield

    no sir they will close down soon when the tap doesnt flow neither does the wallets

  • Sally

    These guys have only themselves to blame if ABRA rejects their appeal and they're stuck without a liquor license.

  • sb

    they should market themselves to DC's large Mormon community!

  • Nekojita

    I've been to Shaw Tavern twice so far. The menu is quite good, albeit in flux. If you really want a drink, why not start out with cocktails at a U St. bar (say, the Gibson) and then walk a few blocks (or take metro b/t U St and Shaw stations) to enjoy a lovely, fresh dinner at Shaw tavern?

    Above all, it would be a shame to see such a lovely space and potential neighborhood hub fall vacant.

  • DCDude

    I've been here a few times and LOVE the food. I wish the board would get back to work and pass fate on their license. I want to know one way or the other if I can stop and have a drink there with dinner or if I should eat and then go home and enjoy a night cap if I choose to.

  • RT

    The city government (ie council lazyasses) need to jump in and lobby to save this place. These guys (the council) wouldn't know what it takes to start a business in this city.

  • Rico Amero

    I have performed there, and hope to do so again in the future. These are good honest people, who may have made a mistake, but they deserve a real chance to succeed. It's a shame that places like the Stadium club are allowed to operate and spread their negative energy, while this place is allowed to fall to the wayside. Shame DC... Give em a break!

  • Ben

    I'm a dutiful supporter of local eateries, and find the NIMBY-ist protests to every single license application both tiresome and counter-productive. That said, these guys knowingly served alcohol illegally, going so far as to doctor their license and application documents in order to procure alcohol. In the world of licensed establishments, those are major no-nos. Thus, the onus here falls--rightfully--on the shoulders of the establishment to prove that they can operate responsibly, and that they deserve their license. If they can hold out long enough, my guess is they will ultimately get the license. But the shame shouldn't fall on DC here, the shame should fall on the unbelievably poor management of this restaurant and the decisions they made.

  • Rico Amero

    Mistakes were certainly made. But being in this industry for over twenty years, I have seen things that would make your skin crawl, much less should have resulted in places closing/losing their licences. The people that screwed up are gone, and this city is starving for quality establishments. Believe me, DC turns a blind eye to folks with connections that do far worse that Shaw's.

  • Ben

    Since the previous management is gone, that is why I feel that the Tavern will likely end up with a license--it would seem rather callous to deny it if the restaurant has made good faith efforts to respond to the previous management's mistakes. But the duty is appropriately on them to demonstrate that they have earned the right to the license.

  • A

    I love their food, been there a couple of times. Very fresh and well thought out. I wish they would do a little thinking on their drink menu, in terms of adding something more than soda, water, and iced tea. Perhaps some previews of what their cocktails might be like, of course sans liquor? I like their watermelon soup but keep thinking, why don't they make it a drink to at least give us something festive to toast with, even if it's non-alcoholic? I realize that won't satisfy the beerhounds (and Shaw's is after all a tavern), but it would cheer the place up a little.

  • Janet

    This is a town filled with closet alcoholics. This is why they can't go out to dinner at a dry restaurant.

  • AAB

    I hate to be the adult here, but forging documentation to any city office--no matter how ineffectual that office is--is against the law. Many other ABRA license holders have been able to navigate the process without being reduced to lawbreakers. I'm not that sympathetic. Also, if they really want to stay open, they can buy an existing license that is being held in safekeeping.

  • AP

    I'm sorry but when did everyone become an alcoholic? Can people not eat without drinking booze on the side?

  • Chris

    Question is: Were they informed that they could not have "PRIVATE PARTIES" ?

    Maybe, they forgot to palm the inspector or invite the local ANC Commissioners - therefore this is the results!

  • Chris

    Been there tonight - look out Nora there is competition!

    The service and food "superfantastic".

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  • Eric

    Guess the answer was no

  • Sally

    Guess the City Paper got its answer: Shaw Tavern announced that it was closing.

  • Shaw Resident

    Shaw's Tavern is closing until a decision is reached by the board regarding it's license. I think that the board really should stop dragging their feet and award the license. Their decision to delay has now caused a business which is a welcomed by the growing community to "temporarily" close it's doors. Personally, I feel it's just irresponsible by the board economically and socially. Now you have employees who are again looking for work in an already down economy, and forced a business to shut it's doors that was paving the way for potential additional community investment by other businesses.
    I hope this ends favorably for Shaw's Tavern and shame on DC your job but don't block good business!

  • WarrenOnJuniper

    What about serving O'Douls and fancy non-alcoholic drinks?

  • sam

    Come on gentrification kiddos! You come down so hard on liquor stores who make simple mistakes, but make all sorts of excuses for a gastropub? And you don't consider the hypocrisy of your thought? Come on! I wanted Shaw Tavern to succeeded but I can't believe the hypocrisy!

  • er

    which commentors specifically have both condemned liquor stores and are making excuses for this place?

  • copperred

    I did go while it was still open and the food was to my liking, and I really didn't miss the lack of alcohol. What I could have done without was the GM/owner walking around trying to blame nebulous dark forces and the ANC/ABRA/ABBA/AnyoneButMe for their current situation. Actions have consequences.

    Forgery and breaking the law several times is not going to endear you to people who enforce the law. I had no idea this was going to be a shock to some people.

  • CoHo

    Actually, Shaw's Tavern held at least 2 (I want to say 3)of these private events prior to thier official opening. The first one, I distinctly remember construction was ongoing. It actually looked like a soft opening until I noticed the construction crew back the following day. Whether or not alcohol was served, I'm not sure, but at the other event, the guests were all nicely dressed in dresses and dark suits.

    Now, jurisdiction aside, getting and keeping a liquor license is difficult. No one from the DC ABRA forced Shaw's Tavern to hold private events and illegally serve alcohol. That said, don't get mad at the ABRA for being forced to do their jobs. ST gave the ABRA the medicine they're now being forced to take--- Take it!

  • Bruce

    I heard that more than one local ANC commissioners was at at least one of the events. Too much small talk and no real questions asked or commissioner-ing going on. The ANC might have been able to provide them with a temporary license or even Councilmember Jack Evans as Evans did -- overstepping the ANC -- when he helped get an event license years ago for the GreenTurtle — downtown where the rich folks he really cares about live — in advance of a big holiday (St Paddy's day or something).

    Chris August 25th:
    "Maybe, they forgot to palm the inspector or invite the local ANC Commissioners - therefore this is the results!"

  • Janet

    Actions without motive shouldn't have dire consequences. Its tantamount to life in prison for stealing a slice of pizza. This restaurant was put in a place that no one else wanted in a neighborhood where getting a small business to open is almost a miracle. To say they didn’t play by the rules when they are a brand new establishment is crazy, how would they know the rules. ABRA Board fine them enough to make yourselves happy and lets get the place reopened again as quickly as possible.

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