Although he’s opened nearly two dozen restaurants throughout his career — including his first in Baltimore just a few weeks back — restaurateur Mike Daryoush knows what it means to fail.
His first attempt at a deli, Moby’s Luncheonette, was a flop. Daryoush moved to America from Iran in 1975, and spent $36,000 — the bulk of his savings — to open a restaurant selling “American” food: sandwiches, grilled cheese, pickles on the side. But it wasn’t turning a profit.
Daryoush missed the tender kebab meat and fresh baked pitas he was used to in Iran. So he started making changes he knew would yield better results, even if it wasn’t going to be immediately recognizable to his clientele.
He began by building a tandoor, a clay oven, used to bake the pita breads. Then he gradually added traditional Persian foods to the menu. Daryoush started small: beef with spices. Cubes of grilled chicken. Slices of marinated lamb. Then he added sandwiches and salads. In 1989, Moby Dick House of Kabob debuted in the same Bethesda, Maryland, location (7027 Wisconsin Avenue) it is now.
“A friend said you had to create a concept,” Daryoush tells Eater. “You have to follow some road. You can’t copy it, it has to be something unique.”
Before the explosion of quick-service restaurants and the appearance of globally inspired eateries on every corner, Moby Dick was ahead of its time. Named for a restaurant in Tehran where Daryoush grew up (the owner was rumored to have been a huge fan of author Herman Melville), Daryoush made Moby Dick into the D.C. area’s easily approachable introduction to Persian cuisine. He prioritized food over decor; for years he couldn’t afford to laminate or tile, so he left the concrete floor unfinished. Moby Dick stayed open seven days a week, with Daryoush working nearly every day, closing only on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
For three years, Daryoush toiled at the Bethesda location before opening up a second spot in Georgetown in 1992. Another arrived in McLean in 1994. He now boasts 23 restaurants, including the newly opened Baltimore location. A shop in Dupont Circle got a refresh this summer. And Daryoush is in the process of moving the flagship Bethesda store a few doors over to take advantage of the larger kitchen (three grills instead of two) and additional seating afforded by the former Stromboli’s restaurant he bought earlier this year.
Still, Daryoush remains wary of growing too fast and losing the quality that his clientele depend on. He points to other restaurants who find an investor and a quick infusion of cash to rapidly expand yet soon see cost-cutting measures creep in — often to the detriment of the food. This is why Moby Dick grows, “one restaurant at a time,” Daryoush says. And he remains mindful of not breaching capacity.
“This is why I keep my pockets short,” he says, gesturing with his hands.
His son, Ned Daryoush, who serves as vice president of the company, says Moby Dick has been able to branch out without affecting the quality of the food because the company runs its own commissary kitchen — an 18,000-square-foot facility in Hyattsville, Maryland, where all the featured meats are prepared, yogurt and hummus get made, and trucks deliver bulging sacks of basmati rice. The commissary is undergoing an expansion now as Moby Dick settles in around Baltimore, the company’s first major move outside of the D.C. region.
Mike Daryoush acknowledges this is a change for them. “We want to take it slowly,” he says.
Mike Daryoush attributes much of his success to the team he works with, several of whom have been with him since the deli days. “We are a family and we work and breathe from our heart. And to some extent, I always had a good team. More smarter people are joining us,” he says, pointing to Ned and Alex Momeni, his chief development officer
“No one leaves Moby Dick,” says Momeni, who has been with the company for nine years. Ned Daryoush agrees that his father cares deeply about the morale of the staff, even going out himself to get a pizza to eat when Moby Dick has sold out of food at closing time and staff is hungry.
But as someone who has weathered three decades of changes within the restaurant industry, Mike Daryoush seems undaunted by the challenges that lie ahead.
“Twenty years ago, when we opened here, we didn’t have any kind of Mediterranean, pizza, Mexican or hamburger competition. These days, how many different kind of burgers can you have? How many Mediterranean spots?” he says. Moby Dick, to him, has been a constant. There have been some adjustments — adding more salads, serving salmon instead of swordfish, using less butter in the rice — but the core menu items remain largely unchanged since the early days.
And ultimately, it’s those core offerings — the ones he missed most back when he was just starting out — Daryoush expects to keep Moby Dick going for another 30 years.