The kitchen at Dave’s Taverna is perfectly orchestrated chaos. The culinary maestro’s raise their chef knives not to conduct sweet notes, but to delicately shave off strips off lamb. Roasting and dripping on a vertical rotisserie, they fall to the plate like strips of juicy tree bark.
Tickets detailing orders frantically print to the steady beat of old computer dial up, coming out on both sides of the kitchen counter and prep station. Inching and spilling out over one another, each ticket dangling from the one before by a corner.
The surface of the grill begins to fill up, covered in pita, veggies, and sliced meat. Chef Kyle stands at the head of the grill slicing meat as steam rises and parts with his face at the center. Chicken tenders are dropped into the fryer to his left. Immediately the poultry is engulfed in deep golden bubbles, warm and crispy in this oily hot tub. They’re seized out of their bath quickly causing a controlled tidal wave of grease in the fryer.
Fries are pulled from the basket drip drying next door and poured into their metal tanning bed, awaiting seasoning and a swift shovel into a crisp, white, parchment paper bag. “HOT FOOOooD” someone yells. Owner Dave Engel darts to the counter, pitching in a helping hand to run the food to the dining room, aiding his staff that’s already hustling at the start of their typical dinner rush.
Dave Engel, the man behind the line, isn’t a new player to Port Republic Road. He has owned salad creations, across the street from Dave’s, for six years now, recently rebranding it as his own original concept, Greens & Grains Cafe. He assumed ownership of Dave’s Taverna in 2015 after the previous owner, Dave Miller, was no longer capable of running the restaurant. This local hotspot is a favorite to both Harrisonburg locals and JMU students.
Their Mediterranean inspired menu has become a staple to the communities’ growing culinary palate leaving a very specific, taste profiled, pair of shoes for Engel to fill. While attempting to maintain what patrons of this eatery love, Dave also has some changes of his own to bring to the table that he thinks will only strengthen the joint.
Changes have already begun at the heart of what makes this operation run so smoothly; staffing. At a table in the main dining room, Dave sits with a clipboard facing his newest interviewee. Professional and poised, he commands an otherwise casual situation.
Conducting interviews with couples lazily nursing beers at a table behind him, and a backdrop of the bar with chrome beer taps adorned with tiny leprechaun stickers. He interviews qualified kitchen candidates and first time waitresses with the intention of growing his currently thin stretched staff with equal opportunity in mind.
As a strong and patient communicator, Dave is eager to create job opportunities for all ranges of experience. A welcome change from the previous owner who kept staffing sparse and exclusive. Even amidst the growing chaos of the dinner rush, Dave is heard responding to a flustered employee,
“I’d be happy to help, that’s what I’m here for.”
Some older staff members have come along for the ride, having experienced working under both the previous and current Dave. Mr. Wiley for one is the most seasoned man in the kitchen. Two years of experience allows him to seamlessly prep the menu for the evening. An arduous task given almost everything, from breads to sauces, is made from scratch.
On this evening he’s conductor of chips and lamb, slicing and monitoring the 100+ portioned log of meat that could get upwards of 50 slices at the peak of warm weather and post spring break diets. The kitchen heats up at this time, and Wiley finds its best to cool down in the bright white and chrome industrial freezer adorned with a sticker reading “Eat My Pita”.
Coleton, the kitchen manager, began working here in September and has been the driving force behind some of the kitchen and menu changes. While they generally stick to the recipe binder, some new and fresh additions have been made over the last couple months.
For starters, new pasta and pizza sauce has been rolled out along with the switch from frozen to fresh and handmade burger patties. Sunday has also welcomed brunch for Dave’s, a success that is forecasted to continue as the men in the kitchen discuss what fresh quiche they’re going to cook this weekend. They decided on spinach and ham, and quickly disband to resume their evening prep.
Scott Schmitt is the first man to jump in to help on the line this evening, and the man who has been with Dave’s the longest. When he moved to Harrisonburg, there wasn’t even a Walmart. Since then he’s witnessed the town grow along with JMU, with Dave’s working to unite both parties. He’s been at Dave’s since it was downtown where he managed for four years.
He opened the Port location along with Dave Miller, but quit near the end of his time due to financial qualms. Dave Engel has since invited him back, and since his return he has been an integral piece to keeping Dave’s as authentic as the patrons remember.
“We’re kind of like a family,” he notes. A family the staff is collectively excited to grow.
Gazing into the dining room, he notes the mix of students, Patagonia clad and pitcher happy, and families with kids darting around. “This is what makes our city”.
Back in the kitchen, the first batch of a new alfredo sauce is spooned into a pan by Coleton for its maiden voyage on this evenings dinner rush. A small flame cooks pasta on a skinny gas stove nestled between the fryers and the grill. A batch of buffalo balls emerge, steaming from their dip in the fryer. The golden nuggets are transferred, still hot, into a basket that’s quickly whisked from the window by a server passing into the main dining room.
Dave checks in on the line to throw in a helping hand with the five orders already in the queue. All the men on the line are cooking, shaking pans and moving around each other like a dance. Each one is so aware, they move past open drawers spilling out with fresh produce without even a glance.
Above the hum of grills, freezers, and the large metal mouth of the pizza oven belching waves of heat, you can hear table numbers and toppings being yelled around at assumedly someone in particular.
A ticket arrives to the window with the wrong type of roll written down for a steak and cheese. The ticket came from a new waiter, who bursts into the kitchen frantically to fix his mistake. Amidst the groans of the kitchen staff, now thrown out of their rhythm to remedy this error, Dave defends the new staff. He’s new after all, and there’s bound to be some bumps along the way.