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Chef Tony Chittum wasn’t looking for history, just fresh ingredients.
Before reopening the Iron Gate in Dupont Circle, Chittum found a grapevine on the restaurant’s back patio. He started pickling the leaves and using the grapes in an Italian mustard sauce.
Which means he’s now doing the same thing that Nabih Saah was doing at the same space almost 50 years ago. Saah managed and ran the Iron Gate in the early 1960s. He’s also the one who planted the grapevine in the first place, and he says he cooked with the leaves.
Almost every day is throwback Thursday at the revived Iron Gate. The recently reincarnated restaurant has a century’s worth of old photos, menus, and newspaper clippings to prove it. One of the more recent finds, a salvaged 1994 bottle of Iron Gate harvest wine, also comes from the grapevine out back. (Nabeel David, who owned the restaurant at the time, sent the grapes off to a vineyard in Charlottesville to be bottled.)
“It’s probably one of the few wines made with D.C. grapes,” David says. “It tasted much better unopened. It actually had a pineapple flavor, interestingly.”
Until 2010, the Iron Gate was the oldest continuously running restaurant in D.C.—open for 87 years. Over the past several decades, it’s been a debutante’s tea room, a dimly lit Middle Eastern restaurant, a patio hangout for writer Tom Wolfe, a reception hall for family weddings, and even the setting of some ghost tales.
The restaurant was closed for three years until it was revived in 2013 by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, a relative newcomer (historically speaking) to D.C.’s restaurant scene. The group is behind recent projects like Bluejacket, GBD, Red Apron Butcher, and others.
It was part history and part nostalgia that attracted Neighborhood Restaurant Group founder Michael Babin to the Iron Gate. He remembers walking down Dupont Circle’s N Street NW 18 years ago as a young lobbyist and discovering the passageway leading back to the restaurant.
“It almost felt like I was trespassing…I wandered through and found it. I really felt like I found something special,” he says.
Today, the restaurant is easier to spot, with a large sign and a walkway lined with candle lanterns. Inside at the bar there’s a long list of grappa, ouzo, and Greek and Italian wines. Virginia wines and Bluejacket beers are also featured. What was once a horse stable is now where Chittum serves a six- and four-course tasting menu. It’s a seasonal mix of dishes grouped by meats, seafoods, and vegetables. All the dishes are Italian- and Greek-focused and use local ingredients.
Originally, the plan was to open earlier in the spring, but construction delays pushed the date back, Babin says. One of the challenges was the wisteria vine. Over time, its roots grew into the foundation, breaking apart one of the walls. The real issue was the restaurant’s obvious age. “The bones were beautiful, but it was a lot of work for such a small space,” he says.
The building that would go on to house the Iron Gate was built in 1875 by Admiral William Radford, after he retired from the Navy, according to records kept by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, which has owned the property since 1922 and still keeps its headquarters in part of the space. Radford’s wife Mary gets credit for planting the wisteria in the garden. But the building’s distinctive style didn’t take shape until a few years later, in 1898. At that time, General Nelson A. Miles, a hero of the Indian and Spanish-American Wars, rebuilt the mansion’s carriage house into a Spanish-style stable for his horses. Diners can still eat next to a wooden stall where Golden Pebbles, Denver, and General Wool would have grazed on hay.
When you enter the restaurant, you pass under the federation’s mansion, through a cobblestone walkway to the backyard. The federation started the restaurant as a tea room serving both club members and the Dupont Circle neighborhood.
A stable was just the place for a tea room in 1923, says restaurant historian and author John DeFerrari, who recently published the book Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats. When the Federation Tea Room first opened, it was at the height of the tea room craze. Typically these were gathering places for women during Prohibition. A less formal tea setting cost 50 cents; high tea served with light food was $1.50, worth about $20 today.
In 1928, the women’s club federation handed the tea room over to the University of Maryland’s dean of home economics, Marie Mount. She renamed the restaurant the Iron Gate Inn and cemented its reputation for American dishes, like stuffed chicken and tenderloin steaks. “She would have been considered an early entrepreneur and restaurateur,” DeFerrari says.
Recipes for Mount’s butterscotch rolls—a dessert roll that is heavy on butter and sugar—are still listed on the federation’s website. The rolls have piqued the interest of Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s executive pastry chef, Tiffany MacIsaac, who is looking to introduce a version of her own soon.
Mount died in 1957, and the restaurant transferred to Charles Saah, who owned a successful chain of lingerie shops. Saah also ran the Desert Inn, which was located in the alley behind the Iron Gate and may have been one of the first Middle Eastern restaurants to open in D.C., DeFerrari says. In the 1960s, the Desert Inn was scheduled to be torn down, and Saah moved a block north to open a new restaurant at the Iron Gate. The pairing was an unlikely match from the start, says Saah’s niece, Consuelo Saah-Baehr, who worked as a waitress at both the Desert Inn and Iron Gate.
“Here was this straight-laced women’s group, the federation, and they essentially rented out the place to a sort of wild, renegade, off-the-cuff guy,” she says. “It wasn’t rowdy, but there was a relaxed camaraderie that made creative people gather…My uncle created that atmosphere of making you feel welcome.”
During the 1960s and 1970s, the Iron Gate became a popular hangout for diplomats as well as journalists from National Geographic and the Washington Post. Saah-Baehr remembers meeting her friend Tom Wolfe there. The writer was then a city reporter at the Post and a regular at the restaurant. She followed him to New York and remained friends with him there. Eventually, she became a writer and novelist, too.
Because the Saah family was so large, many brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles all worked there. The Saahs hosted family events, like weddings and funeral receptions, at the Iron Gate too.
At one point during his years overseeing the establishment, Charles Saah left to become a royal taste tester. For two years, he spent time abroad, cooking and tasting meals for Saudi Arabia’s King Saud. In the 1980s, his brother-in-law, Nabih Saah, and two sons, Raymond and John, managed the restaurant. (Nabih Saah, who worked there for more than 30 years, says he is, at 87, the restaurant’s oldest living manager. “I was bartender, host, cook, busboy, cashier, everything.”) But the food reviews and service went downhill, DeFerrari says. Eventually, a tenant dispute with the federation ended the lease.
If the Saahs brought about rapid change to the Iron Gate, transforming it from an American-style inn to a Middle Eastern restaurant, Nabeel David, the Iron Gate’s next and most recent owner before Neighborhood Restaurant Group, made sure to exercise restraint and precision. He took over the restaurant in 1991 and hired a chef to cook Mediterranean food, like lamb shank with orzo and feta. Nabeel wasn’t in the kitchen, though his family had a legacy of running restaurants. That also didn’t stop him from trying the hummus every day to make sure it tasted right.
David also learned to live with the restaurant’s ghosts. In his 19 years running the Iron Gate, he says a number of guests claimed they either saw or heard ghosts. They didn’t really bother him, he says. But one morning, he walked into the restaurant to find a bottle of Southern Comfort empty, a stain on the carpet, and a chair knocked over. The restaurant’s music was still playing from the night before and a candle was lit.
“I closed and opened, so the candle would have burned out,” David says. “That was the biggest incident with the ghost.”
In the kitchen, David’s chefs relied on produce from farms in the Shenandoah Valley. He started growing his own garlic because it was fresher than what he could buy. And his gardening turned into an all-out obsession; now, he’s an organic farmer on the Northern Neck of Virginia and produces about 300 to 400 pounds of hardneck garlic a year.
“At the time we were using and recognizing ingredients that weren’t being used before…The emphasis was on fresh and local ingredients,” he says. “When I got the restaurant, I got all of my ingredients from a farmer friend.”
Back in the kitchen at the Iron Gate, that much hasn’t changed. Chittum is relying on a network of farms in the Mid-Atlantic region to supply his tasting menu. He’s using clams from Kent Island, Md., (which also happens to be his hometown) in a Bigoli pasta dish with garlic and chilis. And, for one of his vegetable dishes, he’s using baby beets from the Path Valley in Pennsylvania.
Call it history repeated or what’s old is new again. “If it’s a legacy, we’re trying to keep it,” Chittum says.
Iron Gate, 1734 N St. NW; (202) 524-5202; irongaterestaurantdc.com
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery