Tavira offers hidden charms in Chevy Chase

Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2006

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
The glamour of fine-dining — romantic soft lighting, sparkling white linens — is balanced with a rustic Old World feel at Tavira in Chevy Chase.

Tavira, a warm, elegant Mediterranean restaurant oddly situated adjacent to a parking garage in a generic-looking mid-rise office building, proves the old cliché, ‘‘You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

Aptly named for an ancient fishing town in southeast Portugal once ruled by the Moors (‘‘tabira” is Arabic for ‘‘the hidden”), Tavira is an oasis of Mediterranean calm and comfort tucked in the center of suburban chaos. Even the sharpest pair of eyes could easily miss the small sign directing wearied commuters to the restaurant as they travel up the frenzied stretch of Connecticut Avenue between East-West Highway and the Beltway ramps.

But Duarte Rebolo, the Portuguese expat who took a chance on the challenging slice of Chevy Chase real estate seven years ago, manages to keep customers coming despite the cosmetic and logistic hurdles of his restaurant’s location.

The space loses its basement feel the moment one crosses the threshold that separates the office building’s garage from Tavira’s cozy bar area. With its tiled floor, patio-style tables and grand wooden bar, the front room of the restaurant offers an informal, relaxing respite from the frenzied pace of Connecticut Avenue.

The main dining room similarly balances the glamour of a fine-dining establishment — romantic soft lighting, sparkling white linens — with a rustic Old World feel that reveals the owner’s affinity for his homeland. Filled with the aromas of olive oil, garlic and lemon, Tavira faithfully pays homage to the vibrant seafaring culture of Portugal, from the European catches and Madeira wines on the menu to the ornate blue-and-gold porcelain plates neatly laid out on each table. Hand-painted tiles Rebolo brought back from Portugal and a colorful mural depicting the seaside town for which the restaurant is named adorn the walls.

8401 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase
Average entrée: $15-$25
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Sun., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-9 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Fri., 5:30-10 p.m. Sat.
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Rebolo describes his clientele as a well-traveled, adventurous assortment of young couples, retirees, business people and families, many of whom have been to the Mediterranean region and know as much about the cuisine as he does. But for the uninitiated looking for a taste of the real thing, Tavira offers a daily fixed-price menu from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. that features a smattering of the restaurant’s most popular – and authentic — Portuguese dishes. For the full effect, one can start with an appetizer of sardines ‘‘escabeche,” marinated in olive oil, garlic, bay leaves and paprika, followed by a roasted salted cod entrée with Vizcaina sauce (sweet red peppers, garlic, paprika and olive oil) or, in cooler weather, a hearty seafood stew with shrimp, clams, mussels, scallops and potatoes. For dessert, the menu features pudim flan, a traditional Portuguese custard, as well as chocolate cake with pistachio ice cream.

The front room used to play host to a lively after-hours business crowd, but Rebolo says Montgomery County’s smoking ban has cut down the number of patrons coming exclusively to the bar.

Now, Rebolo sometimes invites patrons to enjoy appetizers and a complimentary glass of champagne at the bar while they awaiting being seated for dinner.

Perhaps it’s that kind of enterprising adaptability and personalized service that has kept Tavira afloat despite the dismal track record of the eateries that preceded it. During the 1980s and early 1990s, when a series of other entrepreneurs were trying and failing to cultivate a successful business in the basement of 8401 Connecticut, Rebolo was honing his craft in a variety of jobs in the food service industry – and laying the foundations for a place of his own.

‘‘This is what I do, all of my life,” Rebolo explains in his heavy Portuguese accent. At 15, he began working in local kitchens in his hometown on Portugal’s Madeira Island. He says he was ‘‘skimming fish and working as a dishwasher.” As a young man he had the opportunity to emigrate to Miami, where he found work with Celebrity Cruise lines. He landed in the Washington area after meeting his wife Linda, who works for Children’s Hospital, on one of those cruises.

In the late ‘80s, after bouncing around several downtown restaurants, Rebolo ended up at the Watergate Hotel, where he worked under some of Washington’s finest chefs, including Jean-Louis Palladin and Robert Weidmaier, and built lasting relationships with those who would later help him build Tavira.

Rebolo says he set out to start his own business when the long hours at the Watergate began to wear on him. He had heard about the string of failures in the space now occupied by Tavira, but decided to try his hand at it anyway.

Getting people to the restaurant (without getting lost) is still a hurdle, but Rebolo attributes Tavira’s success to the knowledge and experience he acquired after so many years in the business.

‘‘You have to be here, you have to know what you’re doing. And then you bring some people to help you out,” he says.

When Tavira opened in 1999, Rebolo enlisted some of his colleagues from the Watergate and other restaurants in the D.C. area, including head chef Loreto Hoyos, formerly of Bethesda’s Andalucia.

‘‘I work with good people,” Rebolo says proudly of his team, most of whom have been there since the beginning. ‘‘The reason I’m here is because I work with all these people who used to work with me.

‘‘We are like a family.”