Mike Daryoush’s first restaurant — Moby’s Luncheonette in Bethesda, Md. — was a typical American breakfast-and-lunch joint, with fare including steak and cheese sandwiches, Reubens and tuna melts. He opened the eatery in 1987 with $36,000 he saved after leaving his native Iran in his early 20s and settling in the United States, where he worked as a dishwasher, a waiter and a bartender.
Struggling to distinguish his restaurant from the profusion of similar lunch establishments, Mr. Daryoush installed a clay oven used to make traditional Iranian pita-style bread. The new offering proved popular — encouraging him to expand his menu to include other Iranian specialties and marking the beginning of his restaurant’s rebirth as Moby Dick House of Kabob.
Mr. Daryoush, whose popular fast-casual chain grew over three decades to include 24 locations across the Washington region and gave many local diners their first taste of Persian food, died May 9 at a hospital in Fairfax County, Va. He was 66. The cause was a heart attack, said his son Ned Daryoush, who is also vice president of the business.
When Mr. Daryoush replaced Moby’s Luncheonette with the first Moby Dick House of Kabob in 1989, he had “two purposes,” he once told a publication of the U.S. State Department — “to make a lifetime career, and to support the Iranian culture.”
“Through the stomach,” he added, “is a good way of reaching people.”
Moby Dick appetizers today include a dish of sauteed eggplant and yogurt, called kashk bademjan, and the yogurt shallot dip must-o-mooseer. Kabob platters feature marinated ground beef called kubideh, chenjeh grilled steak, lamb barreh and joojeh grilled chicken breast.
The kabobs, restaurant critic Phyllis C. Richman once wrote in The Washington Post, “are as lean as one could wish, well marinated and crisp-edged from the open grill. They’re generously portioned, and grilled carefully so they’re cooked through but not dried out.”
The platters are served with basmati rice, dotted with saffron and sumac. But the bread, Richman wrote, was the “drawing card at Moby Dick.”
“The bread maker apportions and weighs balls of dough, then rolls them out one at a time, scores them so they don’t balloon in the oven, stretches them to fit over a large white cushion and then — using that cushion as a kind of puffy potholder — slaps them against the sides of the oven,” she wrote in 1994. “In a few minutes, when the flat breads are browned and blistered, he removes them and hangs them up to cool. The process is hypnotic, and the resulting bread has a fragrant wheatiness.”
Mr. Daryoush’s operation was cited as one of numerous Iranian-owned businesses that have thrived in the Washington area since the 1979 Iranian Revolution brought an influx of Iranian immigrants to the region. “Before the explosion of quick-service restaurants and the appearance of globally inspired eateries on every corner,” a writer for the website Eater DC observed in 2017, “Moby Dick was ahead of its time.”
The second Moby Dick, opened in 1992, was located in the Georgetown neighborhood. In its early years, it received customers until 4 a.m. on weekends, catering to taxi drivers, George Washington University Hospital physicians and local college students.
The first Northern Virginia location opened in McLean in 1994, and the most recent additions to the chain opened in Baltimore and Pikesville, Md., in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Moby Dick is currently the sixth-largest locally based restaurant chain, according to Washington Business Journal. Last year, it received the RAMMY Award for Favorite Fast Bites of the Year from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.
Nezameddin Daryoush (pronounced Dar-ee-OOSH) was born in Shiraz on March 7, 1953. His father died of appendicitis before he was born, and his mother died of a heart ailment when Mr. Daryoush was 8.
Mr. Daryoush lived with an aunt before moving in the mid-1970s to the United States, where he began going by Mike. He studied electrical engineering at George Washington University and then began his work in the restaurant industry. He became a U.S. citizen in 2001.
His marriage to Laura Rogers ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 17 years, Suzan Behpour of Potomac, Md.; two sons from his first marriage, Ned Daryoush of Washington and Josh Daryoush of Nashville; and two sons from his second marriage, Aarod Daryoush and Aaram Daryoush, both of Potomac.
A frequent question from Moby Dick patrons was the provenance of the restaurant’s name. By one account, Moby Dick House of Kabob was named after a Tehran establishment that catered to U.S. Embassy workers before the revolution. By another, one of Mr. Daryoush’s business partners was reading Herman Melville’s classic novel “Moby-Dick” when they opened the original location.
For the American palate, Mr. Daryoush tempered the spiciness of some Persian dishes and used less butter in his rice. He traced his success in part to his own perseverance, but also to the curiosity of his patrons. “This food is the new wave of taste for Americans,” he told the State Department publication in 2003. “In the United States, people are not afraid of trying.”