So Jon Taffer, the jet-engine-loud fixer who’s made his coin correcting other people’s mistakes, has entered the hospitality game himself, during a pandemic, no less. He has launched Taffer’s Tavern, a laid-back if deceptively high-tech pub, with franchise locations in three cities, including Washington, whose clubby outpost is situated prominently next to the Capital One Arena.
The budding chain would appear to be an opportunity for Taffer to put his money where his big mouth is, though you have to wonder if the man is, perhaps, just a glutton for punishment. I mean, why would Taffer make himself such an easy target? I suspect diners of a certain disposition will seek out Taffer’s Tavern just looking for trouble, so they can give the “Bar Rescue” host a taste of his own bile-filled invective on Yelp, Reddit or some other crowdsourced dumping ground.
Taffer may think he’s bulletproof with his tavern concept, and not just because he has worked hard to temper everyone’s expectations. He has also partnered with Cuisine Solutions, the sous-vide specialist that can promise something no kitchen brigade could: consistent cooking across the menu. The Northern Virginia-based Cuisine Solutions is essentially serving as producer for Taffer’s Tavern, doing for restaurants what the host has done for years on his TV show: bend reality to his will. In this sense, Taffer’s move into the hospitality biz is rather seamless. Both television and full-service restaurants survive on a kind of stage-managed reality, divorced from life as we know it. Taffer’s Tavern just takes it to a whole new level.
The man who bills himself as the industry’s Mr. Fix-It wants to sell you on his tavern of the future, a neighborhood-y place with a kitchen that’s not prone to the kind of human errors that can lead to salmonella poisoning in the dining room or second-degree burns on the line. Taffer’s Tavern is designed to channel public house aesthetics of yore (if they had flat-screens, that is), but is underpinned by a modernist kitchen where almost everything is prepared with the push of a few buttons.
Cuisine Solutions handles back-of-the-house operations at every Taffer’s Tavern. The company is also the franchisee of the D.C. location, which performs double duty: first, as a functional eatery under the auspices of a TV celebrity and, second, as a showroom for potential buyers of Cuisine Solutions’ tech-driven solution to running a restaurant in an era of labor shortages, unpredictable food costs and supply-line disruptions. An executive recently gave me a tour of the kitchen, where the usual fryers, grills, ovens and burners have been replaced with silent, squat, ventless cooking devices, the kind you might see on the counter at Starbucks. There is not a sauté pan in sight.
Part of me is dazzled by the technology that holds Taffer’s Tavern together and what it might mean for the future of hospitality: kitchens that require fewer and less-skilled workers; grill and fry stations that need no expensive exhaust hoods; dramatically reduced pickup times; improved worker safety; lower food costs; basically, more resilient restaurants that can better absorb the blows of an ever-fluctuating economy.
But another part of me aches for the back-of-the-house employees who are line cooks in name only, their primary responsibilities being to grab precooked, pre-portioned food, reheat it and plate it for the greater good of Taffer’s Borglike operation. This model clearly has its benefits, but they’re not always to the customer planted in the low-lit dining room or sitting around the horseshoe bar. After several visits to Taffer’s, I’ve developed a theory: that a fair number of things can go wrong between the recipes meticulously crafted at Cuisine Solutions — by some of the most accomplished chefs in the land, with input from Taffer — and the dishes that land on your table in Penn Quarter. Especially when the final steps may be handled by folks with little more than push-button culinary skills.
My evidence is voluminous enough that I won’t be able to share it all, but here are the lowlights of a menu that begins with products largely cooked sous-vide at Cuisine Solutions, then shipped, reheated and finished at Taffer’s: a French onion soup that had few caramelized onions but a fat wad of cheese submerged in the broth; a hamburger, cooked perfectly medium-rare, but seemingly without a grain of salt or a grind of black pepper; skin-on fries, one of the few items cooked fully in-house, that were limp and starchy. And this was just my first meal.
Later meals turned up a wedge salad with so little of the warm bacon vinaigrette that I was left poking at a naked block of watery iceberg lettuce; a super-soft “roasted” chicken breast with creamy mashed potatoes that looked like something served in coach class during an overseas flight; steak frites in which the flatiron cut had been waterboarded to the consistency of guacamole; chicken and waffles in which the precooked bird was fried in-house to a nice crackle but the base was so gooey and underdone that the pearl sugar concealed inside the waffle cracked against my teeth like grit from a poorly cleaned oyster.
The best plate I had here were the wings — dubbed Taffer’s wings for reasons I don’t understand — slathered in a housemade mumbo sauce, which is about the only thing that would make you realize you’re in Washington and not Alpharetta, Ga., or Watertown, Mass., where Taffer’s Tavern has also planted its flag. (I’m told that about 30 franchises have been sold, so Taffer has just started big-footing his way across the land.)
You won’t find much local flavor, if any, among the draft beer options, either, despite the wealth of breweries in the area. The cocktail list, which would seem to play to Taffer’s strengths, borrows ideas from the wider world of mixology without, apparently, understanding how best to apply them. The tiny pile of wood chips that sits next to the trademarked Campfire cocktail — basically a fat-washed Old-Fashioned — is ignited purely for show, not flavor. And I’m still not sure why my server charred a jalapeño tableside, which I was then told to swish around the spiced rum-based Resurrection, a drink that looks like it was mixed with water from Splash Mountain. The latter cocktail, I should note, was lifted from Spirits on Bourbon in New Orleans, where it made the list for the “biggest, dumbest drinks” on Bourbon Street.
All told, I sampled 18 dishes and drinks during my visits. Even grading on a curve, I liked five of them, which makes for a hit rate of just under 30 percent. That’s worse than the success rate of Taffer’s TV show, which one site pegs at about 55 percent. If I were guest-hosting an episode of “Bar Rescue,” this is the point where I would yell, “Shut it down!” — though I might have to cough up a licensing fee to utter the phrase. Taffer has trademarked it.
700 6th St. NW, 202-984-7237; tafferstavern.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown or Judiciary Square, with a short walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $4.95 to $27.95 for all food, beer and cocktails. Wine and champagne prices range higher.