Silver Spring’s Piratz Tavern takes a few lessons from ‘Bar Rescue’


Juciano Rebelo places a pirate flag on the wall inside Piratz Tavern, which he owns with his wife, Tracy. The bar returned to the pirate theme after a brief run as “Corporate Bar and Grill.” (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
July 26, 2012

There’s no way to discuss the Piratz Tavern saga — the one laid out in the schadenfreude-dripping “Bar Rescue” season debut this Sunday on Spike TV — without spoiling a scene or two. So spare the ombudsman your protestations and just imagine yourself in Tracy Rebelo’s shoes.

Rebelo is co-owner of Piratz in Silver Spring, and not long into the episode, she gets a tongue-lashing from “Bar Rescue” host Jon Taffer, the man who’s supposed to stop this sinking ship of a tavern from taking on more water. Taffer thinks he’s identified the problem: Rebelo and her bodice-heaving desire to play pirate, as if she were invited to some amped-up adolescent Halloween party that’s dragged on until middle age.

“Do you want to be a pirate, or do you want to send your daughter to college?” Taffer bottom-lines it for Rebelo.

Taffer has his reasons for using Rebelo’s own flesh and blood against her. At the time of filming in February, Rebelo, her husband, Juciano, and their teenage daughter were living with Tracy’s parents. Neither husband nor wife drew a salary, and they were, according to “Bar Rescue,” $900,000 in debt. To Taffer, Tracy and Juciano were in hard-core denial about the viability of their pirate playground. (While Rebelo doesn’t deny the debt, she insists Piratz’s five-year-plus lifespan proves some kind of viability.)

Piratz’s financial crisis reflects systemic problems, Taffer deduces, which the program details: There are lies (LIES!) on the menu, such as frozen not fresh fish; Juciano, the tavern’s chef, can’t tell shrimp from lobster; the rum-heavy cocktail menu is a diabetic’s nightmare; the staff is more interested in playing out its alcohol-infused pirate fantasies than in generating income to cover payroll.

“When do you say to yourself, ‘This is my enemy’?” Taffer says, confronting Rebelo about her bilge-sucking pirate concept.

“This is not my enemy,” Rebelo shoots back, sounding defeated.

Anyone who has watched “Bar Rescue” knows that Taffer is a force of nature, a veteran restaurant-and-nightlife consultant who never tires of hearing his own opinion. His radical plan for Piratz has been well-documented, here and elsewhere: Taffer performed the equivalent of a sex-change operation on the tavern, transforming the scurvy-dog establishment into the irony-deficient Corporate Bar and Grill.

The moment you see Tracy Rebelo’s dead-eyed stare at the cheap corporate makeover, you know she’s going to force this dumb Dilbertesque concept to walk the plank. It’s as if Taffer is business-savvy but emotionally stunted. He thinks he can stuff a party of pirates into cubicles, and they’re going to accept it without complaint. The Rebelos, as their surname implies, rebel against the corporate concept.

On the phone from Piratz, Tracy Rebelo sounds surprisingly upbeat about the upcoming episode. The tavern is even hosting a watch party Sunday, which seems tantamount to inviting friends over to witness your public flogging. But Tracy, who has watched the episode, is quick to remind me that “reality” TV isn’t so real.

“It’s all one big farce. They cut and paste to their advantage,” Rebelo tells me. “They made a great TV show, and we have no problems.”

It’s unclear whether this is more of the same denial that Taffer cited on the program — or just acceptance of what he and the crew have actually done for Piratz. The failure of Corporate Bar and Grill is beside the point. The crew’s very appearance in Silver Spring has generated boatloads of free publicity for Piratz. Taffer and his consultants also provided suggestions that appear to have been incorporated into the $60,000 renovation of Piratz, including the bar now found in the underused front room.

What’s more, “Bar Rescue” gave the Rebelos some cash and left behind equipment and signage that the owners have either hawked at a yard sale or burned in effigy in a public YouTube video. So in a limited and backhanded way, “Bar Rescue” has done what the owners hoped: It helped upgrade a rickety niche restaurant and pointed out many areas for improvement. That the owners had to make the changes themselves only fuels their pirate persona.

“When this whole thing happened, I said my two biggest regrets are my first husband and ‘Bar Rescue,’ ” Rebelo says. “I can say at this point, no, I don’t have any regrets.”

Rebelo claims Piratz has emerged stronger — a Man O’ War with only a few holes to patch (like hiring a qualified chef) before it’s ready to do battle again. She and her family have found a house of their own, and she expects to be “totally square” with Piratz’s debtors by the end of the year.

But she doesn’t mention what, arguably, is her biggest asset.

His name is Jon Taffer, and his very presence has galvanized the swabs at Piratz Tavern. They’re determined to play pirate in a town that tends to create laws, not flaunt them. Despite this, the same old question dogs the tavern: Will the button-down denizens of Washington support the place? Or will Taffer have the last laugh one day as he stands over the corpse of Piratz Tavern and says, with an icy finality, “Outlaws always lose”?

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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