Shaw’s Tavern in Washington DC, a Beacon of Creativity and Diversity
By Liam Klenk
Rob Heim is the general manager of Shaw’s Tavern in Washington DC. Over the years, Rob and his team have turned the restaurant and bar into a beacon of creativity and diversity. In this interview, Rob talks with us about Shaw’s Tavern, about what their entertainment program entails, and about how their amazing community is supporting each other now in times of Covid19.
Hello Rob, can you give us a little bit of background about yourself and about Shaw’s Tavern?
I was a music education major at the Catholic University in DC. I played the bass trombone.
Throughout my studies, and after, I worked in several other restaurants. But there wasn’t much opportunity for me to bring my creative ideas to the table and incorporate music into the restaurant’s daily operation.
Then, I found Shaw’s Tavern. It opened a few months before I came on the team. I’ve been with them since 2012.
Shaw’s Tavern is located in the neighborhood of Shaw in Washington, DC. It is a up and coming neighborhood. Lots of bars and restaurants have developed there during the last few years.
We opened our restaurant for other things than just food and drink. The aim was always to enrich the neighborhood by offering creative entertainment tailored to the community.
Our neighborhood is diverse, but there are definitely a lot of members of the LGBT community who have moved in and bought properties.
Shaw’s Tavern is not necessarily a gay bar, but we do offer many events that include the LGBT community.
What kind of entertainment events do you offer?
We regularly offer a Piano Bar (a little bit like they do in New York as well), with karaoke. Lots of live music with live singers.
Over time, Shaw’s Tavern has attracted a lot of theater people, singers, and vocalists.
The more connections we made with local performers, the more active we became. We started offering semi-monthly cabaret shows on Sunday nights.
They were enthusiastically received.
Then, the people who were performing in our restaurant brought in even more people.
In 2018, we introduced the Drag Dinner every Sunday night.
What’s great about our Drag Dinner is that younger people can come in as well. For most shows you have to go to bars, which means you have to be 21 and over. We have many 16-year olds come in as well.
Like there was one 16-year old who came in with his family. He ended up being invited backstage. He had his make-up done and has since performed for our Drag Dinner as well. I thought it was absolutely wonderful how his family came in with him and supported him.
Definitely fabulous. How are your events faring since the beginning of the Covid19 crisis?
Unfortunately, due to Covid19, we haven’t had any live entertainment in Shaw’s Tavern since March.
The mayor is still not allowing for any live entertainment of any kind.
But we’ve found a solution and have moved our entertainment online.
We now do Drag Bingo on Sundays. We play Bingo and then each Sunday three drag queens pre-record performances for our online show.
Every Monday night is Trivia Night. Actually since 2012. But for the time being, while it happens online, we have moved Trivia Night to Saturdays.
We have people joining our online events from all over the world.
Through Trivia and Bingo we are trying to get donations. At first these went to our staff, while they were out of work. Now we donate the donations to different charities.
The Piano Bar we haven’t been doing quite as much online. We do it just once a month. It is hard to match the video feeds of the pianist and the singers.
Through which medium do you stream your online events? And how are they being received?
Drag Bingo is on Facebook Live. We use a streaming service called Streamyard and stream it straight to Facebook Live.
Usually, we send a few of the people the link so they can come on camera with us. Everyone else is just watching and then has the opportunity to write in the chat.
Trivia Night is set up differently so everyone can see each other.
Our first Drag Bingo video streamed in April. The drag queen who was performing wasn’t even in drag because she was like, “What for? No one is going to watch this.”
But a surprising number of people watched, and for the next show online, she was in drag.
There are always a few new people. And emails from people saying how much they look forward to Drag Bingo every week and how it has helped them through this time.
Washington Blade even nominated us for Best Virtual A and E Events.
Congratulations! How is the overall situation for Shaw’s Tavern? Will you guys be able to make it through the current crisis?
Amazingly, we are only down 12-13% in revenue compared to last year in August and September.
It’s a testament to being in a neighborhood where people work at home.
Also, when this all started in March, we only closed for one day (on St. Patrick’s Day of all days).
The next day, we opened our window and people just came in and supported us. Some even bought a burger for 15 dollars and tipped 100. It was humbling and simply wonderful.
Soon, we started donating to hospitals and frontline workers.
Between March and May we donated around 5000 meals.
Then we started teaming up with other restaurants in the neighborhood to spread the load.
We do our best to stay positive on social media every day.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, people are paying more attention to see what their favorite places are doing, as opposed to before the crisis, when they didn’t pay as much attention.
We are also getting a lot of support from DC Different Drummers.
I’ve been a member of the DC Different Drummers community for many years now. They were such a wonderful group to be a part of after the competitiveness at university. It’s a non-audition group and I could just go and play. It helped me so much. Also during the time when I wasn’t so sure yet of who I am.
The DC Different Drummers have been around since 1981. They started as a marching band at one of the first Pride parades in DC and grew into this huge organization.
For a while, we supported DC Different Drummers at Shaw’s Tavern. Now the group is supporting us. It’s a community, a family, and it goes back and forth.
They are still the main people that support us. Whatever they can do to keep us standing. It’s a testament to musicians and the musical community how they are able to support each other.
And it means the world to me and the restaurant.
It is wonderful to hear of such strong mutual support and collaboration. Is there anything else you’d like to add Rob?
Yes, I would be remiss if I did not mention my husband William. Behind all this, especially since March – while everything has been completely chaotic – if it were not for him, I would not be able to stay as calm and stable as I have been. He is my rock and supports my every endeavor.