Prior to its closing in 2010, The Iron Gate Restaurant was D.C.'s oldest restaurant continuously operating in the same location. But then in 2013, Neighborhood Restaurant Group owner Michael Babin and Chef Anthony Chittum partnered to take over the space and reopen the much beloved restaurant.
Much has been written about the location, which first served as stables when it was first built in 1875 before becoming a tea room in 1923. And for many long time Washingtonians, the restaurant has always been a place of romance. The restaurant blends in to the historical facades of N Street to the long carriageway that opens to an arbor-shaded patio wound with wisteria and grape vines; walking in feels like stumbling upon a secret garden.
That was certainly the feeling Babin had during his first visit in the spring of 1995; the restaurant reminded the Louisiana native of the beautiful courtyards of New Orleans. And Chittum was blown away by the restaurant's history and potential compared to many of the area's newer buildouts.
Babin adds, "When we heard it might be available, we returned a couple times to find the place had aged, but the bones of one of the great romantic restaurants were always there. Our goal in the design was to bring that to the fore and make a few enhancements... D.C. is known for is its monumental architecture, which has its place, but Iron Gate is also a piece of Washington's history. It is intimate, rough-edged and really beautiful in its own way. You get a very different feeling here than when you walk around monumental Washington."
The Iron Gate may not have taken its current form, if Chittum hadn't taken a trip to Greece with his now wife. When he and Babin were throwing around ideas for their new project, Chittum had a more modern space in mind. Fatefully, the trip inspired him to think about a concept featuring Greek and Mediterranean cuisine, which seemed more suited to a classical space. With that in mind Babin showed Chittum the Iron Gate, knowing he would see it and find it to be the right fit; the natural separation of the formal dining room from the more casual outdoor patio mimicked what Chittum had seen in the Greek isles.
Once they decided to take charge of the space there was a lot of work to make the space suit their needs and make it comfortable for diners. Chittum notes, "The same characteristics that give the space so much charm and make it so unique have also proven to be challenging. The kitchen was small for what we were trying to accomplish with the two separate menus. One thing we found out was that the previous tenants would shift their dining room from inside to outside seasonally." So rather than play musical chairs, the kitchen was expanded to take over an interior bar for additional prep work, putting the chefs on view.
The age of the space posed some of the greatest issues. Originally built 135 years ago as stables, the dining room had no heat. The previous tenants relied on thick walls to trap in heat generated by the wood-burning fireplace, but this was insufficient to keep the interior warm. Rather than cap the fireplace and switch to gas, they opted to install heaters. And the trademark wisteria vines? They had infiltrated the foundation and broke apart a wall.
Meanwhile the outdoor seating created other challenges. "We had to think about how to weatherize the outdoors while making sure we didn't deprive the vines of sunlight. So we had to find a retractable awning that was set up high, allowing the sun through," Babin said.
So what did all the old regulars who have loved the Iron Gate think of the changes? Babin says, "They've been really excited and happy to see it in good form. All of them have expressed that it has been so wonderful to come back to enjoy, not just the beauty of the space, but to have a great chef in the kitchen. During the friends and family dinners, we heard stories from 80-year-old men, who had taken their homecoming date to Iron Gate in high school. We hear from old staff, people who've gotten engaged — verybody's got a story about this place."
And as for the rumors of ghosts haunting the space? Well, neither Chittum or Babin have heard or seen any signs of Casper yet. Maybe the new tenants have made the ghosts feel at peace.