After 87 years, the Iron Gate is closing

Nabeel David has operated the Iron Gate since 1991. It originally opened in 1923.
Nabeel David has operated the Iron Gate since 1991. It originally opened in 1923. (John Kelly/the Washington Post)
By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 11:58 PM

I wonder what the second-oldest continuously operating restaurant in Washington is. The reason I wonder is because on Nov. 1, it will become the oldest continuously operating restaurant in town.

On Oct. 31, the Iron Gate on N Street NW - open since 1923 - will close.

"The landlords have an unrealistic expectation of what the market will bear, rent-wise," the restaurant's lessee, Nabeel David, told me last week.

More on that later, but first let us celebrate what is officially called the Iron Gate Restaurant, though most of us know it as the Iron Gate Inn. It is on one of the most sublime streets in Washington, the stretch of N between 17th and 18th that is a quiet escape from the bustle of nearby Connecticut Avenue. Walking between the black iron gates, through a cool tunnel and then into the vine-shaded courtyard is like entering a secret garden.

I've only eaten outside at the Iron Gate, and it was only recently that I learned that there's an inside, too: 65 seats in what were the stables of the 1875 house. Early ads for the restaurant noted, "You may eat in the original stalls if you choose."

Strap on the old feed bag, as it were.

The Iron Gate opened as a tearoom for members of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the nonprofit group that owns 1734 N St. NW and leases the restaurant space to Nabeel. The restaurant's first owner was Marie Mount, a Columbia grad who was dean of the College of Home Economics at the University of Maryland. After Mount's death in 1957, the business was purchased by Charles Saah, a lingerie entrepreneur who switched the cuisine to Middle Eastern.

After Saah's death, his son ran the restaurant, and in 1991 Nabeel bought the business and introduced Mediterranean-infused dishes. He's a second-generation Washington restaurateur. His father, Amin David, opened his first eatery on Ninth Street in 1926 and was probably best known for the Blue Mirror Grill at 13th and F NW.

Nabeel ran the Blue Mirror for a while, then sold it and went to Key West. He returned to the District with the aim of opening a pizza restaurant. (It's the perfect business, he said: low-cost ingredients and a ravenous clientele.) He bought a pasta concern instead, making fresh pasta for local restaurants. And then the Iron Gate came on the market.

"I bought it because it was unique, especially back then," Nabeel told me as we lunched under the wisteria last week. "The place has a magical feel to it. It's real. It's old. I have a quote: 'The best things in life get better with age.' . . . The patina of age is what has made the place so attractive to so many."

Nabeel values what he calls the "instantaneous feedback" of running a restaurant. "I know right away whether I failed or succeeded."

The feedback will come a little more slowly in his next venture: an organic garlic farm. Nabeel and his wife, Lisa, can talk for hours about garlic. (The take-away: There are two main types, hard-neck garlic and soft-neck garlic. Try to get hard neck, which is more flavorful and more likely to be grown in the United States.)

Nabeel said discussions with the landlord never got to the point of a specific number, but he got the impression that the owners were hoping for an increase of 50 to 100 percent.

Natasha Rankin, executive director of GFWC, wouldn't comment on that but said a restaurant will again grace the space, although she doesn't know when. "What we are really actively seeking at this point is a new partner who can offer a unique, creative, incredible culinary dining experience in D.C.," she said.

That reminded me of something Nabeel had said as we toured the kitchen and he introduced me to his staff, some of whom have worked at the Iron Gate for 19 years: "I do not believe in creativity. I'm not a fan of creativity. I'm a fan of slow and steady."

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