News & Politics

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.

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

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.

Three times a week for 64 years, give or take a few, Phil Caruso has taken his lunch at the Iron Gate.

A Marine Corps veteran of the Korean war, at age 79 he’s the doyen of the Caruso Florist shop, which has served Washington since 1903. When I meet him after demolishing my tuna kebab, Caruso is sitting alone in a long booth against the rear wall of the old stable. “I like the atmosphere, I like the wine, and I eat alone so I don’t have to like the people,” he says.

Such is the reward of selling certainty: a clientele that keeps coming back even if the place doesn’t serve pecan-mint mousse anymore. A consolation: The toasted-almond flan is heavenly.

“I love the fireplace,” Caruso says, “and I love the stalls where we sit and eat, but I always say that you’ve got to be out by 3 o’clock because that’s when Mister Ed comes home.”

I discover that the Iron Gate, no longer an inn, isn’t the lone Hines eatery still standing.

There’s the famous Occidental Restaurant at the Willard hotel, Mrs. K’s Toll House on Colesville Road in Silver Spring, and Normandie Farm on Falls Road in Potomac. The Blair Mansion Inn on Eastern Avenue in Silver Spring and the Olney Ale House on Olney–Sandy Spring Road are direct descendents of establishments Hines recommended. In a fortnight of historical dining, I eat at each one.

And there are several more listings in Arlington and Alexandria and farther afield to explore.

Possibly you’ve eaten at Normandie Farm with your mother or grandmother. You may remember the stalwart beams adorned with sayings from French philosophers: “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirais ce que tu es.” (“Tell me what you eat, I will tell you what you are.”) Or the popovers, bursting with buttery steam—“on which the President burned his fingers not so long ago,” as Duncan Hines noted, referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

You may have noticed, in a frame in the foyer, a poem scribbled in honor of those delicate rolls by a patron named Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss:

“To eat these things,” said my uncle

“You must exercise great care.

“You may swallow down what’s solid,

“BUT—you must spit out the air.”

A few days after my brunch at Normandie, I meet Cary Prokos, the restaurant’s owner since 1994 and chef since 1983. Prokos is proud of the restaurant’s history and unaltered decor. He’s in the maison at 6:30 every morning, ordering the freshest fish, and he stays late. To his customers, he notes, he offers the same gift as McDonald’s: the blessing of certainty.

“They want to have duck,” he says of his patrons. “They want to have prime rib. They want shad roe in season. They want it very traditional. You hear people say, ‘I used to come here with my mother,’ and they’re in their seventies. They want it exactly the same way that they remember.”

And they want to remember loved ones there. “Memorial lunches” are a constant of the trade. Says Prokos: “Do you know how many wakes we do here?”

A menu from the restaurant’s inaugural summer of 1931 features Chicken à la King Waffle Sandwich. Lunch is 65 cents to $2 in Hines’s 1939 edition.

Linda Thompson and her husband have been eating once or twice a week at Normandie Farm since the Lyndon Johnson administration. “I think we need a life,” she says. She’s 81.

Is she ever disappointed when she goes there?

“Never, never, never,” she replies. “Anytime I’m down in the dumps, I tell my husband, ‘Let’s do Normandie.’ ”

Does she ever go out to the trendy places in downtown DC?

“At my age,” she says, “you don’t get hot and trendy.”

“How hard it is to find simple dishes finely prepared,” Hines wrote in his little red book. “Corn bread, fried potatoes, codfish cakes, baked beans, eggs, etc. And when the hungry tourist does find them how he shouts the glad news to all his friends.”

Few Americans have cared as much about the food set before them. For more than 20 years, Hines asked for simplicity, freshness, cleanliness, and courtesy. Comfortable in middle age as a salesman of printing supplies before he began self-publishing Adventures in 1937, Hines could afford the best. He’d drive from his home in Chicago to Detroit and back in a day for a good steak and a slice of pie. He conveyed these passions to his readers with balance and neutrality, taking no advertising and never accepting a free meal.

It was Adventures—and his later guides to lodging and fine cooking—that made Hines so famous that he was asked to endorse the line of foods that still bears his name. The book began in the 1930s as a hand-printed sheet of worthy stopping places inserted into Christmas cards to friends. It grew into a popular weapon against the communal cutlery and unrefrigerated buttermilk that American motorists had to endure along the nation’s first transcontinental roads.

“Have you ever looked at the water in which they wash the dishes? Or the color of the towels they use?” he ranted, proclaiming his right to know where to find a healthful, well-prepared meal in Skowhegan, Maine. (Answer: the Lakewood Inn.) “I’d rather spend my money on gasoline and food than on doctor’s bills.”

Hines was no snob. His books granted equal weight to grub in San Francisco and Savoy, South Dakota. “The finest lemon pie I ever had was in a town of 50 people,” he wrote. “It cost 10 cents. One of the poorest was in a large New York hotel. That cost 40 cents.”

Inns that served vegetables, poultry, and milk from their own farms delighted him. His favorite dish was ham and eggs.

“Much of our cooking falls down through the fact that too many cooks are still trying to discover something that will take the place of good butter, fresh eggs, rich milk, and a loving touch,” he wrote. “It just hasn’t been done yet.”

On a day just after New Year’s, I persuade my wife and three-year-old daughter to join me on a road trip to the Shenandoah Valley. Our lunchtime target is an establishment in Middletown, the Wayside Inn, which Hines described in 1939 as “one of those favorite and delightful inns of which Virginia can well be proud . . . and their food is very, very good.” He gives the telephone number—but I never call ahead.

Learning from Adventures in Good Eating that Middletown is 12 miles south of Winchester, we go west on I-66, then turn north for an instant on I-81. There, just before the Middletown exit, is a sign for the Wayside Inn. We find it just as Hines described it 70 years ago, all old wood and waitresses in bonnets. There are portraits and autographs of Washington’s elite—in 1820—and a telegram from John D. Rockefeller Jr. reserving a twin-bed room with private bath.

Through Hines we’ve found the “oldest continuously operating inn in America,” the pride of Middletown since 1797. We sit down to a big chicken pot pie and a two-by-four of haddock with mixed vegetables that actually taste different from one another. Our little Lizzie, on a tour of the rentable upstairs bedrooms, calls out, “Daddy! Are the ghosts here friendly?”

The rest of the odyssey yields disappointment. In Winchester, the magnificent 18th-century mansion named Thornhill—with “excellent dinners, $1” and paneling “carved by Hessian prisoners during the Revolution”—now stands vacant and has been listed for $1.1 million.

In Martinsburg, West Virginia, the handsome Shenandoah Hotel is intact, and its grand salon is available for weddings and banquets—a black-tie ball was held there on Inauguration Day this year—but a hungry traveler no longer can pull up, as Hines did, for grilled mackerel, roast Riverton duckling, or a country-fried half spring chicken. The red-brick Hotel Alexander in downtown Hagerstown and the Francis Scott Key Hotel in Frederick have been repurposed as residential units. So we head home dinnerless, and I set out alone the next day in hope of better luck.

The Anchorage on Queen Street in Alexandria has been carved into condos, and the garden where diners once enjoyed country-cured ham is the parking lot. Collingwood, off the George Washington Parkway to Mount Vernon, ceased operation in 1974 and is now the Collingwood Library & Museum on Americanism and a popular site for catered weddings.

The Olney Inn in Montgomery County—“a charming place, nestled among hickories on a hill”—burned in the 1970s. The spectacular Tudor castle called Rugby Hall, on the riverfront north of Annapolis, became a boarding school and is now a private residence. In late March, it was announced that even the venerable Wayside Inn of Middletown, Virginia, would be put up for auction with a reserve bid of $995,000, its future as the nation’s most indestructible hostelry uncertain. And so it goes.

Then there’s the DC waterfront.

“You probably have been in Washington many times but did you ever get an honest-to-goodness seafood dinner down at the fish wharf?” Duncan Hines asked his readers. “Probably your best girl would not be impressed with the outside of those restaurants but after you have tasted some of their broiled lobster you won’t care what the place looks like and neither will she.”

Hines’s picks on Water Street: Beck’s and Herzog Sea Food Restaurant, famous for “devil crab.” Both are gone. So I settle for a little takeout counter called “Jimmy’s” on the wall and “Jessie Taylor” on the plastic bag handed to me. It contains a sandwich of white bread, iceberg lettuce, sliced tomato, and a folio of fried flounder whose leaves are so ethereal and crisp that I can see through them on a sunny day. Thank you, Mr. Hines.

“You’re not going to hold me to that 50-cent lunch, are you?” asks Ramon Zeender, owner of the Blair Mansion Inn, my last stop, when I show him Hines’s book.

On a Monday at noon, I’m the only customer in what in Hines’s day was called the Original Brooke Tea House—“one of the first suburban tea houses outside of Washington.” A “tea house,” during and just after Prohibition, was a restaurant that catered mostly to ladies and served no alcohol, at least to strangers. The Zeender family has owned and operated the inn for more than 50 years.

Designed by prominent architect Stanford White a century ago, favored by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as a weekend retreat, and popular in recent years for its Mansion Mysteries Dinner Theatre and Monday-night jazz jams, the Blair Mansion Inn is too far from downtown Silver Spring to catch the lunchtime masses.

“Certainly, the odds are against you in this business,” Zeender says.

“The mortality rate for new restaurants in the first five years is 80 percent,” notes his brother Robert. “How many do you think survive for 50 years?”

Yet the Zeenders invested close to a million dollars in 2007 to refurbish their dining rooms in 1880s colors, leaving intact the mural of the Maryland State House and the ceiling map of Annapolis, painted in 1966.

“It’s not a trendy situation that we’re in,” Ramon Zeender admits.

But they’ve survived despite that?

“No,” he says. “I would say we survived because of that. This is not a shopping-center shoebox, where you could just do the brickwork and reproduce it anywhere. You could not reproduce a place like this or Mrs. K’s. There are no places like this.

“We’re not a museum, and we’re not a mausoleum. The hard work I did, and my mother did, to make this place survive is what makes you want it to survive. When you see it all lit up at night, or a party of 200 people having a good time, then you step back and know that it was all worth it.

“We want young people to make their mark on this place after we’re gone, just as we did when we were young. To do that, you have to have a reason, and the reason can’t be ‘to make a living.’ It’s not a living. It’s a mission.”

But all eight of Ramon’s children are, he says, “busy at other things.” Robert’s only son trained as a French chef in a two-star Michelin kitchen, but after September 11, 2001, he told his parents he wanted to fight for his country and traded his toque for a green beret.

I ask the brothers if they’d consider selling out.

“In business,” Ramon sighs, “every business is for sale.

“But,” he adds, “it’s not about price. Someone would have to pick up on the dream.”

This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.