A weekday afternoon at the Peacock Café is one of the few quiet times in the popular Georgetown Restaurant at 3251 Prospect Street. With the tables fully white-clothed and less foot traffic outside, you can get an appreciation of the graceful style of the place. Sitting at the bar, there’s a tennis match on the television between a Russian and a Ukrainian playing at the French Open, which adds to a vaguely casual international atmosphere here.
We talked the Shahab and Maziar Farivar, the brothers who own the Peacock Café, at a table by the back window looking out into an inviting patio. The whole scene looks and feels pleasantly prosperous, like the brothers themselves—Shahab in shirt and tie with a touch of gray in his hair, Maziar in his chef’s uniform, also a little gray, with some ounces added to his frame.
They will be celebrating the Peacock Café’s 20th anniversary on this stretch of Prospect Street, where they first opened back in 1991 as a six-seat restaurant/carryout without a real stove or kitchen. They have become a Georgetown neighborhood fixture in an area where competition includes the high end and glitzy likes of Morton’s and Café Milano.
In a way, the brothers Farivar are a classic American success story with an edge to it, given the times we live in. The brothers immigrated to the United States at a young age, sent here from Iran by their parents who would join them later in the wake of the Iranian revolution that toppled the Shah in the 1970s.
Even though Iranian family tradition of the educated classes are still a part of their way of doing things in America—politeness and manners seems to be a natural and genuine part of their makeup—the men see themselves as Americans, blessed with the opportunities that this country can provide to immigrants who work hard, have adventurous imaginations and have the courage not to be afraid to fail. Like all Americans, they were appalled by 9/11. “We could see the smoke from the Pentagon on Wisconsin Avenue,” Maziar recalls, uneasy with the friction between Iran and the United States.
Some of us at the Georgetowner were regular customers of the first Peacock Café location, 1,200 square feet filled with the smell of fresh bread and sweets. The division of labor back then already existed: Shahab was the front man, the greeter, the person customers and employees dealt with.
“He is the best,” Maziar says. “The best at his job because, you know how people can be in this business. Not everyone is good at the people part. But Shahab is. He’s more than good. He’s interested in people, he likes people, he’s got tons of charm, and everything he does and says is genuine, authentic. People can pick up on that.”
That’s one of those intangibles that make this restaurant—a bigger version of the original—a success. It’s hard to peg, for instance, what the restaurant is supposed to be. You wouldn’t, for instance, guess that the restaurant and the menu is the work of two gentlemen from Iran, “except that sometimes, I sneak some seasoning, some flavors in,” says Maziar. On its website, it bills itself as a contemporary American Restaurant and Bar, which is to say that the menu, eclectic as all get out, does include an array of burgers and maybe one of the best filet mignons around.
“Sometimes I think it must have seemed crazy at the time,” Maziar says. “We put together everything we had and we put it in this place. It was upstairs, in the square right by Wisconsin Avenue, but it fronted the courtyard on Prospect. We thought of it as a café and market, and we thought we might last a couple of years if we were lucky, and sometimes we weren’t sure about that. But you know, we did what we do now, except it’s bigger, with lots more employees, bigger costs to make the nut and a profit.
“Sometimes my mom and dad, they would sit there—there were only six seats, really—so that it would appear that we would have customers there all the time. Crazy, I know. A friend of mine would come in a lot too. But what people liked then was the unusual stuff. We did healthy, fresh before there was Whole Foods, we did gourmet coffee before there was Starbucks. People liked that.”
When they were busy back then, the line stretched out the door.
I liked the vegetarian chili, which is still on the menu and still as good as before. And for me to even admit proximity to vegetarian is the stuff of amazement to friends. But I’m not alone—Secretary of State Hilary Clinton recently celebrated her birthday here with husband Bill, and the ex-prez ate a healthy vegan dinner—quite a thing for a man who was something of a notorious burger king.
It’s hard to exactly identify the quality of Peacock, until you talk to the brothers. Their personalities and tastes, their eager curiosity about the world, their love affair with quality, are like thumbprints all over the restaurant. And Maziar is a talented chef with a lot of soul, who adds an extra kick and a little song to some signature dishes, like the filet mignon with mushroom sauce, roasted duck Provencal, grilled lamb, the Bistro burger with gorgonzola cheese, and the seared tuna sandwich. If you’ve been absent for a long time, they treat and greet you like you were there last Saturday.
They’ve got art on the walls, currently Fashion Week photographs whose proceeds from purchase benefit various charities. They’ve got lots of light and lots of space. You can bring your parents there, your hip artist cousin, your significant other, your grandchild. You don’t hear much from food critics—except for a pair of local bloggers who call themselves the Bitches Who Brunch. Yes indeed. They loved the place and raved about the poached eggs and a smoothie called the Mango Tango.
It’s the quality of the food and offerings that count, to be sure, but often restaurants are more than just food. The story of the Peacock Café is in the event itself, the 20th anniversary, and the story of the brothers and the longtime employees. Several generations of Georgetown University students and their parents have eaten here on graduation day, for instance. “It’s graduation time now, and you know that’s always a bittersweet time for us,” Shahab said. “The kids and their parents that have been coming here will be gone, and that’s sad.”
And it’s really the story of these two men. For a long time, they lived together in Virginia, until Shahab married wife Micky ten years ago. They have two daughters, Ava, six, and Ella Rose, four. “He is the best uncle,” Shahab said. “But I had to kick him out.”
You will also notice that they’re close and comfortable, and that this is the house they built together. The Peacock—and the brothers Farivar—are a Georgetown institution, as much as any restaurant of long standing. They are a part of the Prospect block and a part of the daily life of Georgetowners, from brunchers and students, to residents and families. They’ve made three different attempts to expand—once in Dupont Circle, another time in Baltimore, and another more recently on K Street, right as the big economic meltdown hit.
They both agree there have been some mistakes. “But we learned from them, I like to think,” Shahab says. “I mean, we haven’t given up on expansion, but not right now. We’re here to stay, that’s for sure.”
Maybe, like some fictional character named Dorothy, they’ve learned that there’s no place like home. And home, for the immigrant brothers from Iran, is right here in Georgetown.