Turning Heads

After a six-week Hiatus The Tasting Room is back

By Kate McDermott | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 03.09.15 – Dining, Food & Drink

Foodies in Frederick and its surrounding environs hit the panic button after Christmas when the windows of one of Downtown Frederick’s most popular restaurants, The Tasting Room, were covered up and rumors began to fly that the eatery at the corner
of Market and Church streets had closed.

In fact, The Tasting Room did—but only temporarily—as its owners, Mike and Lori Tauraso, began a long-planned renovation for the restaurant that originally opened in 2001. “We’d been thinking of doing this for some time,” Mike explains. Although the thought of closing a thriving restaurant for nearly six weeks would send most entrepreneurs into therapy, he calls it “a necessary evil. You have to do it if you want to do it right.”

Early reviews indicate they did indeed do it right. Patrons are discovering the “new” Tasting Room has a redesigned bar area, a few additional seats and all new furnishings, but it hasn’t lost its signature “urban chic” design— or the menu favorites that have contributed to its staying power.

“We wanted to create a space that was comfortable, modern, sleek,” says Lori, who designed the original restaurant’s décor and orchestrated the renovation as well, with help from Proffitt & Associates Architects. But she and her husband also chose to juxtapose the century-old building’s past with the present by highlighting its original 21-foot-high tin ceilings, which employees of Dorcus Construction, the general contractor for the renovation, spent days scraping, priming and painting.

“They worked on Sundays to help us meet our deadline,” Lori says. “Their attention to detail is amazing.” The couple acknowledges that some patrons think the The Tasting Room can be loud at times. To improve the acoustics, the new interior features an expanded partition wall that separates the bar area from the main dining area.

“We wanted to provide more space for our drinkers and more privacy for our diners,” Lori says. Soft finishes on the walls and the seats will also help absorb some of the noise, but Mike admits the restaurant will always have a “festive” atmosphere. Patrons will discover that the curved bar is gone, replaced by a straight version that creates more seating and standing space.

It will also showcase a new Cruvinet temperature-controlled wine dispenser, considered “a must” for true wine connoisseurs since it maintains wines’ freshness for up to six weeks. The Tasting Room will also continue to offer its signature cocktails, which on any given day can range from a classic gin martini (shaken, not stirred, of course) to a nouveau “Cardinal Sin,” a wickedly good combination of cognac, charred lemon, Benedictine liqueur, pomegranate juice and sparkling wine.

Opportunity Knocks

Although Mike Tauraso studied culinary arts at Johnson and Wales University and worked at some of Washington, D.C.’s most prestigious restaurants, including the Four Seasons in Georgetown and 209½, by 2001 he was ready to try a different line of work. But then someone told him to check out the prime space at 101 N. Market St.

“A lot of other food places had been here before and had been unsuccessful,” Mike says, quickly pointing out that it had nothing to do with the space itself. But even the building’s owner wasn’t sure it was the right spot for a Tauraso-run restaurant. “I was a little concerned at first that it might be too small for what Mike wanted to do,” says Tod Salisbury. But Tauraso had a vision, and like a fish to water, it wasn’t long before he was back in the restaurant business.

“It’s what I do,” he admits. While Lori was busy designing the restaurant’s interior, Mike spent long days and nights doing everything from demolition work to crafting menus. “I wanted to serve food that I like to eat—simple, fresh and prepared properly,” he says.

He wanted to showcase locally sourced ingredients such as soft shell crab and rockfish. He wanted to accompany them with a wide variety of wines so that diners could sample and enjoy different varieties to complement their meals.

It proved to be a winning formula. The Tasting Room opened in December 2001, just three months after 9/11, yet Mike says he never felt that the national trauma affected business. “We hit the ground running and our business has grown every year since.”

With a décor that looked like it belonged on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, The Tasting Room was a fresh face on the Downtown Frederick restaurant scene, and it quickly drew the attention of diners from throughout the Baltimore- Washington region.

Patrons even began to view the space’s oversized windows in a new light. “When we first opened, we’d hear comments about people feeling like they were in a ‘fish bowl,’” Lori recalls. But now, window tables go first, with some even choosing to wait for a table that provides a view of the activity along Market and Church streets.

Today, the restaurant’s regulars are celebrating its reopening as if they’ve survived a drought. “I was telling someone the other day that I feel like it was summer and my best friend in the neighborhood was away at camp,” says Dave Weaver, a “TR” regular.

“We always knew we had a lot of support but during the six weeks we were closed we realized it’s more than we ever thought,” Mike says. To thank their loyal followers (or perhaps to satisfy them), the restaurant will now be open on Sundays for the first time since its opening.

Even though the interior may look different, the Taurasos aren’t changing their recipe for the restaurant’s “casual elegance” that has brought them such great success. Diners can still find Executive Chef Daniel Storm’s signature dishes such as the panko breaded shrimp, lobster bisque and buttery filets, as well as the familiar faces of servers and bartenders who regulars like Weaver say make the place feel so welcoming.

“Whether it’s the people in here in suits doing power lunches or older women enjoying lunch with their clubs, we will just keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Mike says.