When Med Lahlou opened Station 4 in 2011, its Southwest waterfront location was far from the bustling corridor it is today. But at the urging of the adjacent Arena Stage, which had undergone a renovation and was hungry to partner on a nearby sit-down restaurant for theater guests, he took a chance on the quiet neighborhood.
“I looked at the area and I saw potential was coming there – that maybe five or six years later it will work” says Lahlou, who has lived and worked in D.C. for 35 years. He decided to give it a go.
“I was like, ‘why not? Let’s do it,’” he says. Turns out, Station 4 was busy from day one. “The neighborhood never saw something like that,” Lahlou says. “They were so happy. They’re so nice.”
The restaurant is still going strong seven years later. And now, less than half a mile away, stands Lahlou’s latest project, Lupo Marino. Located along the tony new District Wharf, Lupo Marino features Italian pizzas, pastas, and seafood that fit right in with the riverside location.
While some restaurateurs likely balked at the development’s high overhead, Lahlou called the opportunity to open there a “no-brainer.” And while he admits to being a little scared that Station 4 would collapse after the Wharf took off. It turns out he’s had no reason to worry.
“The Wharf increased the businesses in Southwest so much. Even Station 4 is double what we used to do,” he says.
Even Lahlou would have been ambitious to predict the Southwest waterfront’s rise to a dining and cultural magnet in the city. The Wharf is home to some of Washington’s glitziest dining rooms, from Del Mar and Kith/Kin, where tourists and crosstown visitors pack tables for glistening seafood plateaus and rooftop cocktails.
Despite the buzzy names around it, Lahlou pins Lupo Marino’s early success on its commitment to the casual neighborhood vibe that define Lahlou’s other restaurant’s (Lupo Verde, Lupo Verde Osteria, Tunnicliff’s Tavern and the now-closed Ulah bistro).
“We work with neighborhoods more than anything else,” he says. “It’s all about service, good food, and middle-range prices. It always works. It’s worked for me for 30 years.”
That’s not to say the restaurant business is foolproof. Hiring and affording high-quality employees is increasingly a challenge, and one Lahlou says has only gotten worse as competition grows and the city becomes more saturated with dining options.
“I feel like I’m in Hoboken again. Every turn you make there’s a restaurant,” he says.
Lahlou has an opinion on the contentious battle over Initiative 77, a hard-fought ballot measure that will raise the minimum wage for all workers to $15 by 2025
“It’s going to be harder to make a dollar than it used to be,” he says. “As restaurateurs, we’re going to face problems finding people to work and a lot of people are going to be closing up restaurants.”
Still, Lahlou is optimistic that his experience and foothold in D.C. will allow him to remain successful – no matter what quadrant he lands in next.
“We’re not here to make millions,” he says. “We’re just here to make everybody happy and a couple dollars.”