The walls of the entryway at Tap Room at Dubsdread are covered with plaques, awards and citations that the College Park restaurant has received over the years. But even though it’s a big foyer with high ceilings, there isn’t enough room for all of the accolades. Some of the honors include: Best Burger; Best Outdoor Dining; Orlando’s Best.
Other Bests: Power Lunch, Neighborhood Restaurant, Place to Take Company, Brunch.
And in recent years, it has gotten more widespread notice through OpenTable’s lists of Top 100 Neighborhood Restaurants in America, 100 Best Al Fresco Dining Restaurants in American, and Top 25 Hidden Gems in the World.
That’s right, the world.
So how did it get to be so good? Some might assume it’s the uniqueness of the setting, in a storied building with a wraparound veranda overlooking the city-owned golf course. But the location has never been enough to ensure success here. Witness the restaurants that came – and went – before. Average was the best that could be said of them, though the immediate predecessor, operated by American Golf, prompted me in my review for the Orlando Sentinel to coin a new word: Dubsdreadful.
And, according to Steve Gunter, Tap Room at Dubsdread’s principal owner, the proprietors of American Golf agreed. Back in 2000, Gunter and Pat Casey, his business partner at the time, were opening Sam Snead’s Tavern when the American Golf owners approached them about taking over the College Park space. The two weren’t sure they wanted to tackle a new project. During a recent lunch on Tap Room’s porch, Gunter recalled that one of the American Golf owners called him and said, “We know you’re a little leery to take this on, but you don’t know how bad we actually are.”
After a disastrous – some might say Dubsdreadful – visit, Casey said to Gunter, “We can sure as hell do a lot better than this.”
All they had to do, Gunter said recently, was convince people that they were going to provide consistency, quality food, quality service and cleanliness. “This place was a shithole,” he said.
They took the building over that year and, after some renovations, opened nine months later in May of 2001 as Tap Room at Dubsdread.
They had considered making it another Sam Snead’s Tavern – a restaurant next to a golf course with a theme based on one of the game’s legends made sense. But the building, which will be 100 years old in 2024, would have required retrofitting for a wood-burning oven, a substantial expense, and ultimately it was too close to the Maitland Snead’s.
Although Gunter credits Casey with teaching him how to run a restaurant, he says that ultimately the two had different management styles and eventually had a falling out. Lawyers were involved and Gunter borrowed money from his best friend and his mother to buy out Casey’s interest in Tap Room. The day after he paid the money back, Gunter walked over to Barbara Teal, a manager that had been with him at another property and joined Tap Room shortly after it opened, and said, “Here you go, here’s some stock; don’t ever leave me.”
Teal and Gunter are the yin to each other’s yang. “I’ve learned that I don’t have the skills she has,” said Gunter. “I’m a systems person. My strength is business skills and analytics.”
“Food is my strength,” said Teal. “Staff is my strength.”
“She can stay on task in a way that I never could,” said Gunter. “She is remarkably focused and remarkably detailed, and she has very high standards.”
“I’m a facilitator,” he added, “and she is as well. That’s why we’re successful, because we have management principles.”
“I don’t care who you are,” he said, “you better have an owner that’s willing to die for the company on the property at all times.”
“Yeah,” said Teal with a smile, “I’m the manager that will die for it.”
Owner, too. Gunter made her a managing partner with a 25 percent stake in the business. Last year the restaurant made $5.4 million and the catering division did $5 million.
The two don’t just let Tap Room rest on its considerable laurels. They’ve expanded the menu, adding creative touches while staying true to its American classics foundation and maintaining the consistency and quality of food and service.
And what if the city, which owns the building, gave an eviction notice to Tap Room at Dubsdread? Could it be recreated elsewhere?
“I believe it’s site specific,” said Teal. “The outdoor appeal; you don’t get this view or this privilege of space.”
Gunter mulled the same question. He believes the loyal customers would follow wherever they went.
“But it would never be as good as this place,” he said. “Nothing will ever be this good.”