“This is gorgeous,” comments my sister, who is sometimes easy to disappoint.

“Just wait until we get inside,” I reply.

Iron Gate is located on N Street between Connecticut and 17th, and like several buildings on that strip, the restaurant could probably qualify as a monument if it weren’t located in a city already overflowing with them. Iron Gate’s old enough that putting a date on it is difficult. One waiter tells us it has been open since 1923, another says 1920, and the menu says 1922; everyone on the staff agrees to the claim that it’s the oldest restaurant in D.C.

Iron Gate shows its age, but don’t expect waiters in period costumes. The food is Mediterranean, and it’s served by a smart, casually dressed staff that appreciates that the setting is something special. There are still signs of the days when the building was a stable: The stalls are now spacious booths in the dark and musty inside dining room; the arched corridor where the horses entered is the same as it’s always been, a waiter informs us, only now it’s candlelit and filled with tables. The restaurant’s most ravishing dining area is an arbor that’s practically swallowed by an overgrowth of vines. It’s such a stunning place to sit that when I griped to a friend about how long it had been since I’d been to a restaurant I truly loved, he immediately recommended that I get a reservation—and he’d never even tried Iron Gate’s food.

Iron Gate’s a restaurant for special occasions, which makes it something of a wonder that I’d pick my sister as my birthday date. We fought viciously when we were roommates. She was a premed student who learned to speak fairly fluent Russian; I was an undergrad hoping the world would turn out to be more like a beer commercial. Mutual respect used to be hard to come by, but since we both made unrelated but virtually simultaneous moves east (she’s a doctor in Baltimore), we’ve found plenty of common ground. For one thing, eating together is disturbingly similar to looking in a mirror.

“You guys have got to be related,” our waiter hazards as he delivers the goat-cheese torte. Iron Gate’s staff is always affable, and it’s hard not to be equally pleasant in the presence of the appetizers. The list is short, but there are no duds.

The grape leaves arrive in a tart blend of red wine and balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic, and shallots. The hummus is good, but the star of the plate is the warm, hearty Arabic bread nestled beside it. Our goat-cheese torte is surprisingly mild; with the charred red-pepper coulis that forms puddles around it, the dish is more sweet than hot. While it’s served with several crunchy croutons, we prefer to eat the torte and its sauce with Iron Gate’s startlingly sharp sourdough. My sister says the bread tastes like blue cheese. “I know,” gushes the waiter. “For lunch, I spread the chicken-liver-and-green peppercorn pâté on the stuff. It’s awesome.” On a later visit, I find out he’s right.

Few of Iron Gate’s entrees are as remarkable. Loading up on appetizers and then ordering a salad is actually not a bad way to go. The Greek salad is rich with feta and olives, but a sprinkle of oregano nicely diverts some of the intensity. I’d skip the Caesar, but the mesclun with chevre and endive is lovely, tossed with a vinaigrette that tastes similar to the one that moistens the grape leaves.

If Iron Gate’s entrees suffer collectively from any one thing it’s that few are as cheerful as the appetizers or unique enough to do the setting justice. Seafood is one strong point. Both the yellowfin tuna (flavored with a chunky mix of calamata olives, red onions, and oregano) and the pan-roasted halibut (served with green beans, lemon rice, and leeks) are tender as a melon and nearly as juicy. Unlike the virtually tasteless linguine with roasted garlic, my sister’s linguine with grilled shrimp has some attitude; it’s studded with bits of pancetta and colored with wilted greens. The kitchen’s out of the roasted chicken on our birthday visit, but it turns out to be a good thing; when I try it later, the peach chutney that had piqued my interest does nothing for the chicken, which is overcooked. It’s a common problem. Rosemary jus accompanies the braised lamb shank, but the meat is tough and unable to absorb anything. The pork tenderloin au poivre is similarly chewy and dry—and I order it medium rare. I avoid the filet mignon (and its $25 price tag) altogether.

What’s most disappointing about Iron Gate’s misfires is that the restaurant is otherwise so close to being perfect. It’s hard to imagine a more idyllic marriage of brick and foliage than the shaded arbor; the tinkle of the fountain blends in so naturally that we’re nearly fooled into looking around for a stream. The ambience makes it hard to leave Iron Gate unimpressed. “That was so cool,” my sister says as we walk back through the corridor. And while I agree aloud, I wish to myself that it had been better.

Iron Gate, 1734 N St. NW. (202) 737-1370.

Hot Plate:

“We’ve been driving [to Atlantis] once a week for takeout lunch,” says one reader, referring to a small Greek/

American/Italian restaurant in an Alexandria shopping mall. The lunchtime ritual is notable because the reader works downtown, and she believes that Atlantis’ spanakopita is worth going through the trouble it takes to get it. It is delicious, with a crust that is flaky on the outside and grows just a little chewy toward the center, and she’s right that the appetizer size ($4.25 with a small Greek salad) is plenty enough food for lunch. As for its being worth the drive, let’s just say that if you’re in the neighborhood…

Atlantis Pizzeria and Family Restaurant, 3672 King St., Alexandria. (703) 671-0250.—Brett Anderson

Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to banderson@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.

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