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Farm-to-table trailblazer Nora Pouillon announces retirement, sale of DC restaurant

Nora Pouillon opened Restaurant Nora on the corner of R Street and Florida Avenue in Dupont Circle in 1979. In 1999, it was certified as the country's first organic restaurant. (Courtesy Restaurant Nora)
After 38 years, Nora Pouillon is hanging up her chef's hat

WTOP's Rachel Nania | November 30, -0001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — For 37 years, one name has dominated the corner of Florida Avenue and R Street in Dupont Circle: Nora.

But that is about to change.

Nearly 40 years ago, Nora Pouillon was asked by her business partners at D.C.’s Tabard Inn to open a new restaurant. Her response was simple.

“OK, I will do it. But only if I can do it my way,” the Austrian-born chef said.

And her way meant organic.

When Pouillon came to the U.S. in the 1960s and visited her neighborhood grocery store, she nearly went into shock. She says there were hardly any fresh vegetables and the options were always the same, despite the season.

“Oranges, iceberg lettuce, the bread was Wonder Bread,” Pouillon recalled. “I realized that the food here was very different from in Europe.”

The country’s disregard for health and reliance on pills as a cure-all also took Pouillon by surprise.

“I was flabbergasted with how unhealthy people were. They went in for triple bypass … and obesity, you know, the usual things,” she said.

She took it upon herself to try to change the habits and palates of Americans — starting with dinner. When Pouillon opened Restaurant Nora in 1979, she dubbed the cuisine “new American,” but really, it was farm-to-table organic — long before that was ever a thing.

“I wanted to call it an organic restaurant and people said to me, ‘You’re crazy. Nobody knows what organic is.’ And then, ‘It sounds like a biology class; it doesn’t sound appetizing,’” said Pouillon, a self-taught chef.

Her goal was to prove that “healthy” could be elegant and “organic” meant more than tofu and bean sprouts. So Pouillon filled her menu with old-world wines, classic cocktails, timeless salads and the finest filets and people ate it up, literally.

Over the years, the corner restaurant has become a staple for everyone from politicos in business suits to neighbors in shorts (Pouillon wants her customers to be comfortable so there is no dress code) and even celebrities.

“The biggest success for all of my employees was Muhammad Ali. I mean, people ran home to get cameras and ran home to get the kids to take a picture with him. They were very excited,” Pouillon said.

All of the presidents in office, except for George W. Bush, have dined at Restaurant Nora. (Although Pouillon points out that Laura Bush did bring her daughters in for a meal.)

After several years of plating pan-seared lobster, sustainable salmon and her beloved chicken schnitzel, Pouillon decided her sourcing should be celebrated. In 1999, she became the first certified organic restaurant in the U.S.

In addition to making a name for her restaurant, Pouillon has made a name for herself in the community. Many credit her for getting D.C.’s food and restaurant industry to where it is today, which is a top-rated food city with a Michelin Guide.

Long before “local” was colloquial, she showed chefs that they could source their food from nearby farms instead of mass distributors. She even organized field trips for her culinary competitors to familiarize them with organic growers and producers.  

“I called up every chef I knew in Washington and said, ‘Let’s go out in the country and introduce you to the local organic farms,’” she said.

Slowly, but surely, kitchen philosophies around the city started to shift, and more chefs adopted Pouillon’s approach to food and cooking.

“They were actually getting seasonal, local food and having a connection to who grows and raises the food and that’s a big difference.”

Pouillon says she is proud of the recognition D.C.’s restaurants have earned and is excited to see what the future holds even in her own dining room. On Oct. 18, Pouillon announced her plans to retire and sell Restaurant Nora, which resides in two historical buildings.

Of course she hopes her heir will continue to promote healthy and sustainable food, but it’s not a requirement for taking the torch. Pouillon says she is looking to sell to someone who can “just make it something special.”

“This corner should always be special,” said Pouillon, whose Restaurant Nora was one of the 107 restaurants featured in D.C.’s first-ever Michelin Guide.  

Her announcement came as no surprise to Restaurant Nora’s employees. Pouillon says they were understanding; a few were even relieved.

“Some of them have been with me so long, they are so happy because they can retire too,” she said.

And while Pouillon will no longer be a fixture in her restaurant’s kitchen, she will still make an appearance in others’. She plans to consult with various businesses in the organic food and restaurant industries and continue her work with the five boards on which she serves, including FRESHFARM Markets. She will also maintain an active role in her sustainable seafood business, Blue Circle.

On a personal level, Pouillon says she is excited to spend more time with her four children and five grandchildren.

“Retirement is sort of scary because I have been doing it so long and then one day, suddenly, you don’t go into the office or you don’t go to work … It’s scary,” said Pouillon, who has been preparing her announcement for a year so she “could get used to the idea.”

“I have to admit, I will be 73 next week, and it’s time for a younger person to take over.”

Editor’s Note: Restaurant Nora will not be closing immediately. Pouillon will take her time to find the right buyer. She predicts the process could take between six months and a year. 

 

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