In the past six months or so, Shaw's Tavern has been through a lot: a delayed opening, a pre-opening Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration citation, opening without a liquor license and then abruptly shuttering to wait for a license that was ultimately denied. Sigh. But just before the holidays, some hope was revived that this thing might actually happen with the announcement of brand new ownership and another shot at a liquor license. Eater met up with brand new general manager Reza Akhavan and chef Joel Hatton to discuss just what the hell happened with Shaw's Tavern and what to look for from its 2.0 version if that liquor license comes through.
So tell me how you came to operate this space and how things are progressing?
RA: What happened is [the previous owners] did not get the permit at all. So they had to sell the business to the new owner, Siya [Sadeghi], who has hired me and Joel as general manager and chef. So we applied for a new license and he had some restaurant in DC so it should be no problem. But we're still waiting for the license at this time that we're talking to you. I was hoping to get it this week, but you never know. I think they have three weeks to get back to us.
So right now it's with ABRA.
RA: Yeah. So all other licenses are good — occupancy, even patio occupancy, everything. So we're just waiting for that.
Are you feeling optimistic that it will come through?
RA: I don't really see any reason not to. JH: The ANC backed us. We had to go to a meeting and they backed us. So generally it's a steppingstone and we should get it. But yeah, the holidays put a spike in the middle of everything because people are off work those extra days. I think that's what's slowing it down as well.
I know the original owners still own the building. Are they going to be involved in any way with the business? There's speculation that could cause trouble.
RA: No, not at all. They're like, "We're done. We just want to get rid of it. No more headache." I actually have not met the original owner, but I know that they're like, "Just pay us the rent and we'll be happy."
So tell me about your new plans for the place and how it's going to be different than what they originally intended.
RA: We come from different places. I come from Front Page in Dupont Circle and he comes from Leopold's. Obviously, two totally different places. First of all, it's going to be a casual place. It's not going to be fine dining. With the setup and everything it would be hard to go that way. You will see a lot of microbreweries still here and a lot of wine and also cocktails. Cocktails may be a little focused on American liquors and brands. Beers are mostly going to be microbreweries from the US, a lot of them from around here. And then back of the house, obviously, is all his. JH: Keeping [the opening menu] pretty simple to start just because for the first however many months a restaurant has lots of kinks to work out. So I'd like to keep it very simple to start and let it evolve into something a little bit more. The place is already a tavern so I kind of have to focus on that. It's definitely not fine dining, but I try to do things a little bit nicer than the next guy down the road.
Are you doing anything to change the space around?
RA: Not at all. The only change I did to the space is I got rid of some of those couches and I ordered some more of those high-tables that we have so that people have more tables to sit and actually eat. The only thing is they have leased the whole building now and the upstairs is commercial, so we're thinking to expand upstairs in the near future. It's going to be private dining. It's in R&D right now.
I thought it was condos upstairs.
JH: They were being charged for commercial taxes and then when they went back and said, "Hey, I'm paying commercial taxes, but it's supposed to be residential," they were like, "Well, we're not going to give you your money back. Just make the whole building commercial." RA: And then we're planning to hopefully add a rooftop deck as well.
What kinds of things have you been hearing from the neighbors?
JH: I went to the ANC meeting and we had two or three in the audience and they had some questions for us, they seemed to be very supportive. From the blogs that I read, some of them were pretty scathing, but it seemed like the neighbors wanted this here. RA: I've heard nothing but good things. I've been here almost every day in the last two weeks and there's not a day that I have not had people knock on the door like, "When are you guys opening?" and "We can't wait." So I think everybody's pretty excited about it. Hopefully it's going to happen.
Did you have any trepidation about keeping the name Shaw's Tavern? Did you ever consider changing it?
RA: I never thought about it. JH: Yeah, we never really gave it any thought. But, you know, whether it's good or bad press, I feel like it put us in some kind of spotlight. And then because of the neighborhood, because they're so supportive of us, I think it's going to be a good thing that we're in some kind of spotlight.
So the plan for when you get your liquor license, you're going to open pretty much right away?
JH: The sign's got to sit in the window for five days and then we'll open. RA: So as soon as we get it, we are ready. I am ready. JH: I've been out of the kitchen for like two weeks so I'm really getting antsy. RA: I have hired enough people to start. I have all orders ready to be sent out. We've had this menu since last week.
And are you just going to be open evenings?
RA: To start with, yes. JH: We'll eventually get Saturday and Sunday brunch. You kind of need to have brunch open to keep your food costs down a little bit because eggs cost pennies. There's not really a sit-down brunch place here in this neighborhood. I think the neighborhood needs it. But, again, not to start. Maybe give it a month or so.
And what do you guys think about the debacle that this space has been through?
LH: I just know a little bit about it from the blogs, but like I said, no press is necessarily bad press. It puts us in some kind of spotlight, so I'm just trying to keep positive and not read into it that much. RA: I've been doing business for the past 15 years, even before I started restaurant business, so I've been dealing with a lot of those headaches. So I'm just used to it. We're going to make it happen. The thing is, this place, it's just such a nice place for the neighborhood to have. In the end, I don't see any reason for it not to be open, running and add something to the neighborhood. So I'm very positive that it's going to be around. Very soon.
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