The corner pub is a creature virtually unknown to Washington, D.C., lost amid the pomp and glitz and gimmickry (rooftop tiki lounges! places with eight hundred flat-screens! bars where you can mini-golf!). In the District, for better or worse, big and rich trumps simple and unpretentious; “no-frills” loses out to “no, frills.”
But, like the TV show said, sometimes you just wanna go where everybody knows your name — or, at the very least, to the kind of joint where the wait-staff will actually notice that you’ve become a regular. After all, that trendy new spot downtown — the one with the rope line and dress code and signature celeb-chef Kobe sliders and list of tipples from literally every country on the planet — for whatever else it might offer, it probably can’t claim to be your local.
Appropriately, then, Shaw’s is precisely the kind of corner tavern already said to be in short supply in the Federal City. Indeed, amble along the sleepy residential stretch between the Metro and bar, all huddled brownstones, tiny convenience shops and storefronts slinging Chinese takeout, and you’ll feel you’ve been transported, somehow, to another city — maybe, say, blue-collar Baltimore. You’re also likely to miss Shaw’s entirely, so understated is its signage and simple red-brick façade.
It’s an aesthetic that extends to the interior, where Shaw’s puts its diminutive size to community-fostering good use by way of several long mead-hall-style wooden tables situated between the humble bar area up front and open kitchen in the rear. It’s a shockingly small space — this reviewer kept casting about for a secret door leading to a private dining room (or something) — though, perhaps owing to the rustic, woodsy hues and just-enough lighting, it winds up feeling more cozy than cramped: a sort of log-cabin effect. As if to underline the place’s thoroughgoing lack of airs, the ductwork hangs exposed overhead, and along one wall is situated a proudly dusty-looking old electrical panel.
Ah, but what type of food to expect of such a charmingly unaffected neighborhood spot? Lightly Southern-inflected comfort fare, it turns out — and a winning interpretation at that. Unlike certain of its tonier District destination-dining counterparts, Shaw’s isn’t serving up its Southern with a wink; it’s not “deconstructing” or “reimagining” or anything like that. No, rather it seems to be the case that Chef Michael Santiago simply saw Southern as the tradition most likely to satisfy his customers’ palates. In this way Shaw’s is, above all, a people-pleaser.
And so, with a couple of exceptions, it’s fair to say there’s nothing too wild going on here, from a culinary point of view — just several neatly executed takes on the tried and true. Take, for example, the Carolina-style pulled-pork sandwich, a more-than-generous heaping of savory pink ribbons slathered adequately, but not overwhelmingly, with a tangy, smoky-sweet barbecue glaze, all of it housed in a brioche roll just structurally sound enough not to succumb soggily to all the various juices ensconced within. Or the blackened catfish sandwich: a potato roll, this time, but another entry that receives liberal seasoning and gets drizzled in a zesty remoulade, both of which condiments play up, rather than drown out, the protein’s sapid essence. Neither is an item that, espied on the menu, will occasion a raised eyebrow or prompt questioning of the server — which is, of course, exactly the point of comfort food.
Things get a touch trickier when Shaw’s goes for something just this side of the beaten path. Despite some initial misgivings (a “jalapeno-chipotle glaze”? here? really?), the salmon made for a tasty entree, mostly due to the perfectly buttery consistency of the fish, as well as to, again, the unobtrusiveness of the garnish (which lent the salmon only a slight spicy zing, in this case). The ragu, on the other hand, was perhaps the lone example of a menu item at Shaw’s bearing a description more interesting than the dish was appetizing. With chunks of smoked short rib bathing in a sweet cherry-tomato sauce served atop a tangle of pappardelle festooned with flakes of shaved parmesan, the combination seemed somehow ill-fitting, the otherwise-delectable slivers of rib practically begging to star in their own show separate from the occlusive sweetness of the sauce.
But that’s a minor quibble, and for the most part, Shaw’s hits its marks with great aplomb. It’s not the type of place at which you’re likely to enjoy any kind of grand alimentary epiphany, but that’s not the point. The point is that if you happen to reside in Shaw’s Tavern’s unique environs, and want to come in from the cold for a rib-sticking meal in a setting that’s about as relaxed as D.C. ever gets — well, then, you’re home.
520 Florida Ave. NW
Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m to 4 p.m.; Dinner, every night, 5 to 11 p.m.; Brunch, Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $6 - $13; entrees, $10 - $20.
Ideal meal: House-made chili, pulled pork sandwich.