Jon Taffer, the spirited reality TV star known for his tough love, no-nonsense approach to the bar business, is as confident a restaurateur as they come. Speaking recently by phone from North Carolina, where he was shooting new episodes of his decade-old Bar Rescue makeover show, Taffer proudly sums up his first D.C. venture in one surprising word: “mainstream.”
“It’s not themed. It’s not trendy. It’s not over hip,” he says. There’s also no doubt it’s his brand, starting with a framed portrait of a smiling, whiskey neat-holding Taffer above an electric fireplace upon entry (not to mention for-sale swag and mosaic floor tiles spelling a big “T” just past the door). Brick-framed Taffer’s Tavern debuts on Thursday, September 1 (700 6th Street NW). It’s the second in the U.S., following a 2020 debut in Alpharetta, Georgia, with another opening near Boston next week.
“The environment is intimate and warm,” he says. “It’s the kind of place you’d enjoy being every day.”
Anchored with hearty and filling pub fare, the idea of actually eating here daily doesn’t sound too appealing. Menu highlights include pork belly skewers, tots topped with shredded beef, cheese curds, and mushroom béchamel sauce, fish and chips, and an enormous au jus roast beef sandwich that competes in size with a heap of fries. Wedge salads and pleasing flatbreads lighten up the load, and local ingredients like sausages and produce is used when possible.
In contrast to acclaimed dining rooms and tasting tables around D.C., Taffer’s fast-growing casual franchise enters the crowded comfort foods fold with a tech-savvy edge. Meats are cooked sous-vide, a culinary technique favored by chefs for its consistency and flavor. The short rib entree, for example, goes in a vacuum-sealed bag before spending nearly 70 hours inside a heated water bath.
The sous-vide process is overseen in partnership with Northern Virginia-based Cuisine Solutions, whose chefs prepare the proteins off-site before handing them off to the Taffer’s Tavern kitchen for final touches like searing, crisping, and plating. The arrangement is part of a highly-automated kitchen that eschews typical equipment like a traditional stove in favor of more efficient methods like infrared ovens.
“We do anything any other kitchen would do,” Taffer says. “We just do it in a more high technology way.”
Taffer says the innovative setup reduces his back-of-house labor costs by 50 to 60 percent, eliminating much of the staffing bottlenecks that plague other restaurants.
“We now have the labor resources to make sure the front of the house is really staffed well,” he says.
A polished bar looks much like one he might’ve rescued in the past, winning points for soft mustard-colored seats with back support, local beer poured in frosty glasses straight out of the freezer, and bartenders handling shiny copper shakers with ease. The sprawling former home of Penn Commons got an old-world tavern makeover with green velvet banquettes, brown plaid patterned walls, and emptied whiskey bottles repurposed into chandelier-shaped light fixtures.
A catch-all cocktail menu integrates lots of dehydrated fruits and unexpected accents. A tiny mermaid marker dangles off the tropical Blue Mist with a frothy ginger spice foam finish, while a small sombrero sits on a smoky mezcal Boca Morada. Naturally, there’s “As Seen on Bar Rescue” drinks like a citrusy Rockaway Resilience pulled from his rehabbed menu at Queens’s Bungalow Bar.
Taffer’s personal favorite sipper takes tips from the kitchen. The Campfire starts with a base of rye whiskey combined in a sous-vide bag with browned butter. The mixture is sealed and boiled for four hours before being removed and refrigerated, allowing the butter to come to the top.
The loud hospitality vet, seemingly undeterred by some skeptics of his flashy D.C. entrance, makes a brazenly bold (albeit on-brand) statement: “We don’t believe that there’s a more beautiful, more appealing or just better overall cocktail program in the city.”
He’s humbled by pandemic problems still troubling the overall hospitality industry, however.
“We’ve all been through a life-altering event. And that event has left us with different view points,” he says.
Cleanliness is a priority, with bacteria-scanning hand sensors required for employees along with frequent disinfecting of surfaces. A curated “Tavern TV” station airs random videos and facts on loop like, “because of Happy Meals, McDonald’s is the largest toy distributor in the world.” Big screens will also plays sports, one would hope, with Capital One Arena next door.
An in-the-works brunch menu will roll out once lunch and dinner service is up and running smoothly.
Taffer’s opening advice to himself, while boilerplate, goes back to the basics: offer consistent and professional food, drinks, and service.
“When you start putting all those pieces together you’ve got something pretty special — that’s what Taffer’s Tavern is,” he says.
The neighborhood will fill up with more rowdy TV personalities when celebrity chefs Gordon Ramsay and Guy Fieri debut restaurants this year.
Taffer’s Tavern is located at 700 6th Street NW. Hours are Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.