Nora Pouillon still holds out hope that someone will buy her building, her business and its name to continue her legacy of running the nation's first certified organic restaurant. But she's decided to retire from the hospitality business whether or not she first sells the entire package for a cool $7 million.
The last dinner service at Restaurant Nora will be June 30, although the chef and owner says she will remain open the following day for a private event.
Pouillon, 73, originally thought she would retire only after selling the restaurant and its historic property located on the fringes of Dupont Circle. But the more she thought about it, the more she couldn't stand the idea of dealing with another D.C. summer, when the private-party season grinds to a halt.
The property, business and Restaurant Nora name have been on the market since late January, Pouillon said, and her broker told her it would take six to nine months to complete a sale.
“We didn't want to wait that long,” Pouillon said. “We didn't want to go through a summer where it's very difficult in Washington, especially with our type of restaurant, because we have so many private rooms. Nearly half of our business is private events.”
When Nora shutters, it will reduce the number of certified organic restaurants in the United States by one. While that may not sound terrible, the closing will actually represent a 14 percent drop in such establishments, according to Oregon Tilth, a leading certifier. Only six more certified food operations will remain, one of which is the microscopic Fruitive chain, which has a location in CityCenterDC. (The Oregon Tilth's list may be incomplete: The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Organic Integrity database lists another dozen “restaurants,” but many appear to be something other than eateries.)
Pouillon understands why most chefs and restaurateurs haven't followed her lead: Running an organic restaurant is time-consuming and expensive. The ingredients alone, she estimated, cost 20 percent more. But still, she's disappointed that others haven't followed the trail she blazed in 1999 when Nora became the first certified organic restaurant in the country.
“I have been a success in restaurants for so many years. I would think that would be an enticement to other chefs, telling them, ‘Look, if she can do it, I can do it, too.’ But, unfortunately, this hasn't come through, and I think that's my disappointment,” Pouillon said.
There has been interest in her building, restaurant and name, Pouillon said, including someone who wanted to open Restaurant Noras in hotels across the Middle East. But he apparently balked at the $1 million asking price for Nora's name, which is by design. “I hate to give up my name, so I put a really high number on it,” Pouillon said. The chef's fantasy is that some chef, with deep pockets or wealthy investors, will buy the whole package and continue her organic efforts, or something close to it.
During its 38-year run, Restaurant Nora has been a frequent destination for the most important people in Washington. Since it opened in 1979, Nora has served almost every sitting president, save for George W. Bush (although first lady Laura Bush dined there) and, presumably, the current occupant of the White House. If Pouillon had a hard time impressing critics (The Post's Tom Sietsema once wrote, “never have so many enhancements delivered so little flavor”), she influenced countless chefs with her tireless efforts to hunt for local ingredients and to encourage farmers to produce a wider array of organic ingredients.
Before Restaurant Nora officially turns off the lights, its namesake will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award during the James Beard Awards ceremony on May 1 in Chicago. Two months later, she will retire from the hospitality industry, though she'll remain active with environmental causes, consulting and speaking engagements. She may even write another book, following her 2015 memoir, “My Organic Life.”
“I will have enough to do, and then I will hopefully have time to enjoy my four children and my five grandchildren,” she said. Retirement “will be difficult. It will be very difficult. But, you know, it's about time.”