Inside the entrance to Taffer’s Tavern—above a mantle that frames a fake electronic fireplace—hangs a portrait of Jon Taffer, the host of Bar Rescue. He’s toasting the viewer with his glass. But the likeness is sort of off, as though someone fed his picture into one of those computer programs that makes photographs look like paintings, printed it out, then hung it in a heavy gilt frame.
This unnerving portrait set the mood for my evening at the new DC location of Taffer’s Tavern, which opened next to Capital One Arena on Thursday. I’m there for a Wednesday night media preview, a free meal that the tavern’s Hollywood-style publicity machine has been hyping for weeks. In the (many) press releases my colleagues received, the tavern is described as an “innovative restaurant concept” “designed with traditional Old–World taverns in mind,” featuring “outstanding signature drinks, mouth-watering savory food, excellent customer service, and the highest safety standards in the industry.” Jon Taffer personally promises to “excite the market” in the “vibrant culinary destination” that is DC.
Well, here I am: a consumer of DC food and drink. A member of “the market” who is ready to be excited. The host leads me into the sunken dining room, past serpentine booths upholstered with oriental rugs. The vibe is less “Old-World tavern” than “HGTV man-cave meets mid-tier hotel lobby”: exposed brick, little brass lamps, and flat-screen TVs. I’m told that the cuisine at Taffer’s is almost all sous-vide—a fancy French technique that’s essentially putting food in a plastic bag and cooking it in a bath of hot water. You know, Applebees style. Soft foods abound.
When my dinner companion arrives, we peruse the drink menu, a bewildering thicket of sugar (a “cotton candy garnish,” “toasted marshmallow vodka,” “Browned Butter Rye Whiskey”) that all looks so awful that I literally cannot decide. So I choose the “Taffer’s Tasters,” a flight of four popular drinks, one of which turns out to be blue. The last time I threw up from drinking was in college, after a Halloween party called “Liquor Treating” in which the student residents of a rundown apartment building invited friends to go door-to-door, sampling a different saccharine liquid in each unit. I bring this up because Taffer’s Tasters is basically Liquor Treating without the party, and I eye it warily all night.
Sorry to be petty, but I want to point out that Taffer’s is not what the press release promised. Here’s an example: the drinks allegedly “employ some of the most advanced mixology techniques while staying on-trend and introducing photo-worthy cocktails that taste even better than they look.” Not true. My blue drink tastes like Gatorade topped with a ginger egg white foam. Another drink has a dehydrated orange slice clipped with a tiny wood clothespin to its rim. My friend notes that our colleague actually wrote a story about the emerging mini-clothespins-on-cocktails trend. “Was that recent?” I ask. She hedges. “Umm, maybe two years ago?” The story is from 2017.
Before our food arrives, a suited publicist descends on our table and reminds us of the ribbon cutting ceremony tomorrow. Oh, there’s a ribbon cutting? Yes, and Mayor Bowser was slated to attend, but regrettably she’s busy. A deputy mayor and a couple of council members plan to go in her place, alongside Taffer himself, who is literally rolling out a red carpet in front of the restaurant. Hm, our local leaders are spending a Thursday morning at the DC franchise of a reality-tv restaurant? Baffling—but perhaps a good sign for the food.
It’s not. The spinach-artichoke dip is good, the mumbo wings are fine, the steak-au-jus sandwich is inedibly salty, and the fish part of the fish and chips doesn’t quite flake the way one might expect (a sous-vide symptom, perhaps?). My friend describes Taffer’s Tavern as an “elevated TGI Fridays,” a meal she’d be happy to receive at an airport. But we’re not at an airport—we’re right across the street from Daikaya Izakaya and Bantam King ramen. I brood on that proximity as I pick at my fast-congealing dip.
I know. I’m being pretty hard on Jon Taffer. But at least I’ll give him this: as a man whose bread-and-butter is relentlessly berating restaurant owners on national television, it’s brave of him to throw his hat in the ring. Before dinner, I watched a doozy of an episode of Bar Rescue—one from a decade ago, the only episode filmed in this area—in which Taffer attempts to turn a flailing pirate-themed bar in Silver Spring into a “money machine.” He ditches the pirate theme and, in a play for the networking lunch crowd, renames the place “Corporate Bar and Grill.” “Do you want to be a pirate or do you want to send your daughter to college?” Taffer shouts at the crestfallen owner, who obviously wants to be a pirate.
After that episode, the staff reportedly mutinied, reinstating the pirate theme and burning the Corporate Bar and Grill logo (which was—in a stunning act of self-parody—a literal faceless man in a suit). It’s bewildering how mean Taffer is to this endearing crew of misfits who dress and talk like pirates. How can any man shout so much? Then I remember when he complained to Fox News that Covid relief had made his employees unruly. “A hungry dog is an obedient dog,” he told Laura Ingraham, implying that the government should “cause people to be hungry to work.” Perhaps this has colored my opinion of his food.
When I get up to leave, my stomach is burning from the salt and my phone is sticky from the drinks. But it wasn’t completely awful—I mean, our servers were super friendly. The din was sometimes low enough to hear my friend. And I like that the tavern was bold enough to carpet the floor. I’m trying to stay upbeat when I notice the dining room’s pièce de résistance: a chandelier made of liquor bottles. Frantically, I try to explain why I hate it: My least favorite ex-boyfriend adorned his bedroom walls with a handmade tapestry of empty cigarette boxes, the kind of artwork the Zodiac killer might create to take his mind off all the cryptography. The liquor bottle chandelier is like the cigarette tapestry, but for guys who are middle-aged with pretensions of taste.
But I don’t know, I might just be hangry—I guess I didn’t eat much in the end. And then it hits me: maybe that’s why Jon Taffer screams at everyone like a hungry toddler. Maybe he just needs a good meal.