The Tavern at River Falls
10128 River Road
Potomac, MD 20854
Neighborhood: Potomac/Cabin John
Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Price Range: Moderate
Dress: Business Casual
Noise Level: Rowdy
She-crab soup; fried clams; sea scallops with spaetzle; shrimp and grits; crabcakes; rack of pork.
Starters $7 to $14, entrées $12 to $29.
Oh, Potomac. It has megamansions, manicured horse farms, even Wonder Woman (or at least Lynda Carter). But for all its wealth, it has never had much of a restaurant scene. For a long time, the dining room at Congressional Country Club was your best bet. Then came Bezu, the eclectic but expensive and erratic fusion dining room. Or you could stop by River Falls Seafood Company, Jeff Grolig’s excellent fish market in the high-end strip mall Potomac Village, and pick up some beautiful Cadillac crabcakes.
Now Grolig—once a seafood buyer at now-closed Sutton Place Gourmet—has opened the Tavern at River Falls, which has become instantly popular. Each time I visited, even on a weekday, the place was slammed with an overwhelming number of guys in Nantucket Reds and loads of tanned, well-preserved sixtysomethings. One night I took my parents for dinner. “Wow,” my dad said to my mother as he scanned the room. “You might be the only gray-haired woman in Potomac.”
The dining room, with its bland straw-and-leaf-green color scheme and stone wall panels, feels a bit like a chain restaurant. “The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire rolled out from the speakers, but you could barely hear it over the din, as loud as a Georgetown happy hour.
Fortunately, chef Brian Nussear makes it mostly easy to stay focused on what’s on the table, though unlike many cooks, he does entrées better than appetizers. One of the best ways to start is with an order of meaty, whole-belly Ipswich clams soaked in buttermilk, dredged in smoked-paprika-seasoned flour, and beautifully fried—they make a nice share for two or three. She-crab soup verged on overly rich but boasted wonderful sherry-stoked flavor. But beyond that, onion soup—an oddity in summer—was strangely bitter and devoid of depth. Caesar salad was listless, and sodden pork dumplings in white-miso sauce were downright boring.
But things quickly looked up. Pay attention to specials, which might include Chesapeake rockfish caught that morning or Copper River salmon. From the regular menu, an oblong plate spread with green-onion-and-mustard spaetzle was topped with New Jersey sea scallops as sweet as their prized cousins from Nantucket’s Taylor Bay. Shrimp and grits was perfect, with big, beautifully seared Gulf shrimp over thick chipotle-Gouda grits. A rack of Berkshire pork, brined in honey, soy sauce, and herbs, was juicy and tender but not overbrined, as many are. And then there are those oversize Cadillac crabcakes—jumbo-lump meat bound the old-fashioned way, with eggs, mayo, Old Bay, and dry mustard. They rank in the area’s top tier.
It’s best to stop there—a meal’s landing is even wobblier than its takeoff. There are hardly any bright spots when it comes to sweets, which range from store-bought chocolate cake to boozy but soggy house-made bread pudding.
If Grolig and his team can remedy those deficits, they could have a real hit—and not the kind that stays packed only because there isn’t much else in the neighborhood.
This article appears in the September 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.