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“If I had never been to Shaw’s Tavern before and I saw pizza on the menu, I don’t know that I would necessarily order it, because it’s not a pizza place,” says Rob Heim.
Still, Heim knows better than to pass on Shaw’s pizza. In fact, he cites the pie — specifically, the Original Red Pizza ($13) — as tops in his book. “I think it’s some of the best pizza in the neighborhood,” he says. “The original owners spent a whole bunch of money on that pizza oven…. And on top of it being baked in the oven with [small cup] pepperoni, [our cooks] use a crème brûlée torch to finish it off at the end to get the crispiness. It adds a lot of flavor.”
An “American tavern with Southern roots,” the attractive, affordable Shaw’s Tavern is a popular draw for comfort food fare with a Southern accent, from Cajun Shrimp & Grits ($23) to Fried Chicken & Waffles ($17). In that same Southern vein is Jambalaya Risotto ($20), which Heim, the restaurant’s longtime general manager, singles out as his second favorite item on the menu. “It’s got just enough spice [and] is just a little bit heartier than the shrimp and grits,” he says. “And it’s true to what our menu is, with the Southern theme, but with a kind of new twist with risotto instead of rice.”
Born in New York City, Heim moved to the D.C. area as a teen, attending high school in Prince George’s County. He started working in restaurants at the age of 13, and began managing them shortly after college at Catholic University, spending years at The Dubliner on Capitol Hill and Kafe Leopold in Georgetown before planting his flag at Shaw’s in 2012 not long after it opened.
“I followed the chef here from Kafe Leopold,” says the 47-year-old, who decided to stay on after that chef departed, inspired by the prospect of helping establish the fledgling restaurant in its rapidly revitalizing, increasingly LGBTQ neighborhood. “With Shaw’s, I was really able to kind of make it more of my personality. My goal was to create a feel like Annie’s. Because when I was younger and going out all the time, I loved that Annie’s was the place you’d go and get food and drinks before you went to all the bars, and you’d see all your friends there. I feel that’s what we created in Shaw’s.”
Under Heim, Shaw’s has evolved into a popular neighborhood haunt, one attracting a mixed crowd and dedicated LGBTQ following, in ways that echo the iconic 17th Street steakhouse. Although far from a steakhouse itself, Shaw’s does feature a Grilled Ribeye Steak ($25) as well as a smoked Brisket Platter ($21), the latter a slightly marbled cut of beef slow-cooked to perfection so that it practically melts in your mouth. That and a Pulled Brisket Sandwich ($14) are popular items at Shaw’s, and both were added by Chef Roberto Ascencio shortly after he came on board just prior to the pandemic.
“He’s awesome,” Heim says of Ascencio, calling out the help the chef provided right at the start. “We were doing all these donations for healthcare workers and police officers and firefighters,” Heim says, “and he was there day in and day out [helping] me and one of the owners put together 200 meals a day.”
“It was really tough in the beginning,” he says about the pandemic. “We just started [serving from] the window, and [keeping on] a really core group of staff. We had to pretty much lay everybody else off.
“But what was great was all the regular customers coming by and supporting us the whole time,” he continues. “Our next thing was trying to take care of our entertainers, because we usually have a piano bar and drag shows. We started doing a lot of that stuff virtually, and we’re still continuing it now.” After a challenging winter, things are looking up now in ways similar to last summer and fall, in terms of both staff and sales. “We’re about 75 percent of where we were in staff,” Heim says, adding that projected spring sales are roughly 75- to 80-percent of pre-pandemic numbers.
Fortunately, Shaw’s has also been able to make adjustments to accommodate a dramatic ramp-up in delivery and takeout sales. Sweetening the deal is the fact that delivery and takeout can now include orders of alcohol along with food. A little booze to boost your spirits can go a long way, after all. Consider the Gin & Fancy ($11), a sweet, citrusy concoction, embellished with a sparkling flair, that has become something of a signature for both Heim and Shaw’s.
“I was sitting at the bar after one of my shifts,” Heim says, explaining the drink’s origins, “and [said to] our bar manager, ‘Frankie, make me something with gin.’ And he made me this cocktail, pouring champagne to top it off. And I’m like, ‘It’s fancy.’ It’s delicious.”
Shaw’s Tavern is at 520 Florida Ave. NW. Call 202-518-4092 or visit www.shawstavern.com to learn more about the popular weeknight specials, weekend brunch offerings, and weekly virtual events. Also sign up for Shaw’s VIP email list for restaurant discounts and coupons as well as news and updates. Follow them on Twitter at @shawstavern.
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