Briefly noted: The Twining Court Stables Restaurant

The era of the tea house craze in the 1910s and 1920s left a legacy of restaurants located in quaint, rustic settings such as old mills, former carriage houses, and stables. Customers found the rustic settings charming; they also conveyed a sense of refuge or escape from the pressures of urban life. Notable Washington stables converted to restaurants included the Iron Gate Inn, first opened in 1923 and now operating as the Iron Gate Restaurant; the White Peacock/Tally Ho Tavern at 812 17th Street NW (1923-1959); the previously profiled Water Gate Inn on the site of the Kennedy Center (1942-1966); and the Stables, at 2700 F Street NW in Foggy Bottom, to which in the 1940s an elegant Victorian era coach drawn by two bay horses carried diners from their downtown hotels.

Circa 1960 postcard of the Twining Court Stables. Note Chef Mario Semha wearing the black toque (author's collection).

One of the last in this tradition was the Twining Court Stables Restaurant at 2123 Twining Court NW, an alley running behind P Street near Dupont Circle. An electrical contractor named Jim Travis bought the old stable and carriage house located here and opened it as a restaurant in the summer of 1960. An August 1960 advertisement in The Washington Post jokingly claimed that "George Washington's horse slept here" and promised that the "intimate, early American" eatery was "steeped in Early American charm and history." Guests were presented with menus on scrolled parchment paper, which they were invited to keep as souvenirs.

The "Early American" claim was a bit of an exaggeration. Though unquestionably an important historic landmark, the stable and carriage house was not built until 1905. Scottish-born master builder John McGregor (1847-1911) constructed it as a combined stable, carriage house, and servants' quarters for Samuel Spencer (1847-1906), a powerful railroad magnate who was president of the Southern Railway. Unfortunately Spencer never saw the carriage house completed; he was killed in a spectacular train wreck near Lynchburg, Virginia the year after work on the carriage house began. His private sleeping car had been traveling at the end of a train with Spencer and several distinguished guests sleeping in it. The car along with several others was accidentally detached and stranded on the tracks when another train plowed into it, splintering Spencer's car to pieces and crushing and burning him and his companions.

Spencer's son, Henry Benning Spencer, inherited the carriage house and used it for many years. According to the DC Historic Alley Buildings Survey, stables typically were two-story, two- or three-bay brick structures with a wide carriage door and pedestrian door on the first floor and a hayloft opening and windows on the second story. The Spencer carriage house, though plainly designed, is unusually large for a stable and could accommodate as many as eight horses in the stable section with separate storage for carriages. The Spencers' butler and chauffeur and their families lived on the second floor of the building. Located close to an entrance to Rock Creek Park, the carriage house in the 1900s and 1910s allowed the Spencer family to go riding in the park, a favorite pastime among the wealthy. By 1919 it had been converted to use as an automobile garage.

The restaurant's logo.
After using it for decades as a garage, the Spencer family finally sold the building in 1957 to Jim Travis. The Evening Star's restaurant critic, Emerson Beauchamp, visited the new Twining Court Stables restaurant after it opened in 1960 and found that Travis had done a nice job of recreating the former stable. The exposed brick of the dining room was quaint and striking, and in the Coach Room cocktail lounge in the rear, "you can see the holes where the nails were ripped out." The building's original forge was used to display wine bottles in the summer and as a fireplace in the winter. A ladder leading up to the hayloft was said to be original. Another Star critic, John Rosson, insisted that the charming atmosphere of the Twining Court Stables was at least as important to his memorable dining experiences there as the quality of the food itself.

Travis hired noted chef Mario Semha (1904-1961) to add sophistication to his restaurant. Semha, one of only a handful of black hat chefs in the world, had been born in Nice, France, and trained under August Escoffier in Paris. He was head chef at the Waldorf Astoria in New York before moving to Washington in 1939. His Twining Court Chicken consisted of a chicken breast "bedded down in a half coconut, laved over with essence of esoteric seasonings, topped with the other half of the shell, and the division's sealed with flaky pastry while it bakes to its optimum," according to The Evening Star's Gabby Gourmet. Sadly, Semha died of cancer just a year after the Twining Court Stables opened.

The restaurant was very successful, even if newcomers often had trouble finding it. In time the second floor was opened as a nightclub called The Room at the Top, featuring live entertainment from local singers. Then in 1966, after just six years, the restaurant was sold to Ray Walters, Jr., son of the well-known D.C. restaurateur and owner of the Cafe Burgundy on upper Connecticut Avenue. Walters rechristened it as Ray Walters' The Stables, adding colorful decorative frills, including old saddles and bridges, flickering lanterns, and bales of hay.  He continued a similar restaurant/nightclub format. A late night fire a month after the new restaurant opened destroyed much of the second floor and the building's roof, including a decorative cupola, but the damage was repaired.

The building as it appears today (photo by the author).
Like so many small D.C. businesses, Ray Walters' The Stables saw patronage decline substantially after the riots of 1968. The building's days as a traditional fine dining restaurant ended when Walters began renting it as entertainment space in 1971. For awhile it was The Reading Gaol. Then in 1976 it opened as the Fraternity House nightclub, a gay bar. The bar, which eventually changed its name to the Omega, became a fixture of the Dupont Circle gay community and stayed in business for 37 years, far longer than the brief reign of the Twining Court Stables. In 2013, the Omega closed after the building was sold. The new owners intend to convert the building into a private residence, and the Historic Preservation Review Board has approved their design.

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This article was based in part on Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats, published by The History Press in 2013. Additional sources included the DC Historic Alley Buildings Survey, the National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the Spencer Carriage House and Stable, and numerous newspaper articles.

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