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Golden Oldies
The author set off in search of the area restaurants in Duncan Hines’s legendary 1939 dining guide. Were any still around? A few. They taught him something about why we eat out. By Allen Abel
Phil Caruso lunches at DC’s Iron Gate Inn, one of the oldest restaurants in the area and an entry in Duncan Hines’s legendary 1939 book. A longtime regular, Caruso values the Iron Gate’s sense of tradition and history. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
Comments () | Published May 1, 2009

The guide is 70 years old, a pocket-size book that beckons travelers to follow in the tire tracks of one of America’s famous names. It’s a journey that leads to treasures enduring yet unexpected.

The book is Adventures in Good Eating, the 1939 edition. The quest is as old as travel itself: a good meal in a strange locale. And the author is Duncan Hines.

The fact that Duncan Hines was a real person is the first revelation in this sage and humorous book. The second is that, of the 2,000 restaurants from Honolulu to Hagerstown inspected by Hines in the 1930s, so many remain exactly where they were.

Newly arrived in Washington, I set out to try the book here.

Following a 70-year-old dining guide on an empty stomach is a risky proposition. Many of the establishments Hines recommended are gone. Nationwide, I’ve found that perhaps one in five remains. But I play the game with one rule: Never call ahead to see if a place is still in operation. What fun would that be? To “gasoline pilgrims,” as Hines called his audience, the search is its own reward.

So I burrow out of the Metro at DC’s Farragut North station and begin a late-morning hike to the addresses listed in the little red book.

At 810 17th Street, there should be the Tally Ho Tea Shop, where, Hines wrote, “the food, cooked by colored women, warrants you eating there more than once.” But 810 17th Street is a hole in the ground.

Off to Pierre’s, then, at 19th and I. “You’ll be bound to brush shoulders with some Washington notable if you eat here very long,” said Hines. But the building on the corner is too new, and the Skye Lounge on the ground floor bears no trace of Pierre.

Instead of the Garden T. Shoppe at 1124 Vermont Avenue, there’s a Starbucks. Where Harvey’s—“prices not too high”—stood for decades on Connecticut Avenue, just down the street from the Mayflower Hotel, I find a Bank of Georgetown teller machine.

The Allies Inn on New York Avenue, just west of the White House, is also extinct. For the 55-cent lunch in the dining room at Woodward and Lothrop—“as popular with men as with the ladies”—alas, there’s no point in searching at all.

On the verge of surrendering, I notice one more address to try: 1734 N Street, a converted stable called, in 1939, the Iron Gate Inn. The location, according to Hines, had been the estate of General Nelson Appleton Miles, Civil War hero, commander in the Spanish-American War, avenger of Custer, and pursuer of Geronimo.

“An open fire in winter, a quiet garden in summer, together with well-cooked food attract many Washingtonians,” Hines said of the Iron Gate. “Some of the things their men guests frequently demand are tenderloin steaks and deep-dish apple pie, butterscotch rolls and pecan mint mousse.”

These are tempting words.

Sixty minutes later, I’m polishing off a succulent lunch, scouring the Iron Gate roster of “celestial desserts” for the pecan-mint mousse. I’ve had the fresh-tuna kebab—actually cooked, thank goodness—in a fragrant sauce of halved olives and quartered tomatoes, with roasted new-potato wedges on the side. The French bread is fresh, Dinah Washington is singing “Teach Me Tonight,” and I’m sitting next to the same open fire that warmed Duncan Hines 70 years ago. Thus is the pilgrim’s dream fulfilled.

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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 05/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles