In this week’s TALK series, McLean Today sits down with Gholam “Tony” Kowkabi, owner, Divan restaurant. Divan is the first Persian eatery opened by the restaurateur, a native of Tehran known for D.C. restaurants including Ristorante Piccolo and Catch 15.
Q. Tell us a little bit about your background in the restaurant business prior to opening Divan in McLean.
I have been in the food hospitality industry for almost forty years. During college, I worked in a restaurant, different positions. I really liked the restaurant environment that you meet people, you make people happy. It was something that I wanted to do — my passion. After graduation, I started saving money. I opened my first restaurant in 1986 — Ristorante Piccolo in Georgetown and that restaurant still is open. Prior to that, for about five or six years, I was working at different restaurants in D.C., in Maryland. From 1986 to about a year and a half ago, when I opened Divan, I probably opened another ten restaurants. I was busy, very busy.
Q. You are strictly on the business side, you are not cooking?
During these forty years, I started developing an interest for cooking. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen and I got involved. After all these years, I turned out to be a pretty good cook.
Q. Being from Iran, was it always your dream to open a restaurant with Persian cuisine?
Not necessarily. My dream was what I was doing. My passion was mostly for Mediterranean and Italian, which I did. One of my flagship restaurants were Tuscana West, Downtown D.C., where I was one of the first tablecloth restaurants in that area which was on 13th and 14th street. Not too far away from the White House. I was there for 25 years. This restaurant was a huge restaurant — open kitchen, private rooms. I had a passion but all this time everybody knew that I wasn’t Italian. People kept asking me, “Why don’t you just open up a Persian restaurant?” To be honest with you, because of the political of the world, what’s going on, I never thought that opening up a Persian restaurant would be a very lucrative business. But I have been watching a lot of different types of ethnic food become so popular in the last eight to ten years because I’m a foodie guy and I see it. That has a lot to do with people getting educated about different foods from different parts of the world. That’s why I became more interested. Looking at my background, I’ve always opened up real casual places. If I wanted to do this, I wanted to do it with style. About three years ago, this idea came to my head that, Yeah, why not do the Persian restaurant?
Q. What led you to choose McLean for your first Persian restaurant?
It took me almost two, three years to come up with a plan, the idea, the menu planning, the kind of a design that I want. All my restaurants, 90% in D.C. — I’m a D.C. guy but because there are lots of Iranians or Persians in Virginia and because I live in Vienna, I figured, Tysons Corner is a great destination because it has a Metro. It’s become a very vibrant part of the outside of D.C .area. I picked the Capital One building first. Honestly, it was a good location, but it turned out to be really expensive. I decided not to do it. That’s why my agent took me to McLean.
Q. Is it a family business — does your wife come into the restaurant to help as well?
She does sometimes when we get busy, but my wife loves gardening. We have about 3,000 flowers around the house, in the yard. She plants all these flowers around all the gates and everywhere else. She is obsessed with the flowers and gardening. She loves that, all day long.
Q. Is there a story behind the name, Divan?
There were a whole bunch of names that came to mind. Why did I choose Divan? Divan in Persian has several different meanings. One of the meaning of it is like “grand, luxury.” Another meaning of it, which I was really enthusiastic about this whole name — there’s a poet called Hafiz and he’s just a fantastic poet and one of the parts of his book because he has written a lot of books and they’re all being translated into English and one of his book, the part of his collection of his poem is called Divan. Now in that collection of his book he just says so many beautiful things about life and things of that nature which I really relate to that. I love it. I can quote a few of the things that he says in that book. For instance he says “We are people who need to love because love is the source of life. Love is simply creation of greatest joy.” Another thing is just “laugh, because that’s the purest sound.” It just goes on, and it just… I wanted to have a meaningful name, because in the past, whatever name that I’ve chosen for my restaurant, I wanted it to be so trendy. It did have a little bit of meaning, but more that grabbing people’s attention. But this was truly a meaningful for me.
Q. Is the food, the recipes, things you ate with your family growing up in Iran?
We lived in Tehran — I left Iran 1977 — I was 17, I’m 63 now — which was a very cosmopolitan city just like New York. You live in an apartment; every neighborhood has its own restaurants. I always loved the food, but I knew that the food is complicated, especially if you want to present the food in a restaurant, you have to do it with a little style and finesse. Otherwise, what’s the point of going out right? It was a combination of using all my memories and my experience, put it together. I think that’s what makes any restaurant unique because at the end of the day, you want people to come and appreciate it. It has to be a little bit extraordinary, keeping the original taste and all the ingredients. Basically, that’s what I did. Because I haven’t really been cooking Persian food, I started looking for a chef. I started looking in Southern California, L.A., there’s just incredible Persian community where they have more restaurants. I started contacting some of my friends and saying that I’m looking for someone who’s very passionate and at the same time creative. To make the story short, after searching, I came up with one person. He came and we talked. Then I realized that he can’t really move here but he can help me, to start working on it developing a menu, recipes and all that. That’s how we got started.
Q. How did you decide on the dishes you ended up with?
Just like any country, from different parts of Iran, there’s different types of food. This chef that came here, he was from North and interesting is that the way they approach the food and some of the spices. They like sour things. They have a lot of fresh herbs and fresh food. They have a lot of marination. Persian food, not too many people know about it. They only think, “Oh, this is kebab,” which is not true. This is one thing I discovered too because I’ve been here for 44 years and I haven’t really traveled or remembered everything about Iran, but once I started digging in about the cuisine, I found out, Oh my God, there’s just so much to offer.
Q. You’ve also got some speciality drinks on your menu?
We encourage people with a great selection of wine and craft cocktails, but I noticed that a lot of people, they don’t want to drink, and how do you make them happy? So my daughter, who’s sort of a bar manager for now, she came up with this mocktail, which is incredible. It’s like 10 or 12 different things that uses different ingredients, all fresh fruits, they’re all mixed together. It’s just delicious. It’s been really great success. For me personally and for people who love it.
Q. How is the business doing?
It’s just absolutely incredible and luckily, because we are really not a type of foot traffic place. My goal was, I’m familiar with marketing too, because I used to market myself really well in D.C. contacted social media. We wanted to have people coming from the DMV — meaning Maryland, Virginia, D.C. Once we accomplish that, then we can go further. We succeeded. Honestly, usually a successful restaurant that I’ve done in the past, it takes about a year, year and a half, for you to reach your goal and meet some of your numbers. But here we were able to do it in six months. I was just blown away.
Q. Besides good food, what is the secret to a successful restaurant?
We have a strong management on the floor but we would like to know people. That’s one of the things that we teach [our employees]. They talk to the guests, we find out where they’re from and we meet a lot of people from McLean. It just makes me very happy that I am part of the neighborhood and I can provide happiness for them — good food, good time. We are very very grateful and thankful to the McLean residents because honestly they just come.
Q. Have you eaten in any other McLean restaurants?
J Gilberts because I love steak. My wife and I, we go to the bagel place, Chesapeake; CAVA; we’ve been to the Turkish restaurant several times, Kazan; McLean Family Restaurant.
Q. Sounds like you’re a McLean convert?
We were chosen the top ten in Virginia restaurants. It’s a great feeling. I’m a businessman. As much as I think about money, I don’t really think about money. I focus on doing the right things because when the right things happen, money will come. If we don’t do it right, money will never come. I was really focusing on service because to me there are three elements that makes any restaurant successful: ambience, good service, and good food. You know, ambience, obviously I captured that in this beautiful ambience. But good food and good service, it takes effort. One of the issues that we have — luckily we don’t have it anymore, was hiring the right people. After COVID, I’m sure you heard this, it was very difficult to hire qualified people. We had to spend a lot of time here. I had to bring some staff from other restaurants. I had to hire my kids. I have three beautiful kids. They helped me. it was a team effort.
Interview by Gayle Jo Carter
Gayle Jo Carter is the editor of McLean Today.
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