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A High-End Lebanese Restaurant From NYC Is Negotiating a Move to the Wharf

Ilili’s first foray outside of Manhattan would occupy the glass-enclosed structure that formerly housed Requin

harassment allegation chef Mike Isabella
The glass-enclosed building at the center of the glitzy waterfront Wharf development in Southwest has sat empty for nearly two years.
Photo by Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Tierney Plumb is the editor of Eater DC, covering all things food and drink around the nation's capital.

The jewel box-style restaurant space at the center of the glitzy waterfront Wharf development has a new tenant in the works after sitting vacant for nearly two years. Ilili, a massive Lebanese restaurant based in NYC’s Flatiron District, currently has a lease in place, but is still negotiating terms to rent the glass-enclosed building in Southwest that formerly housed Mike Isabella’s Requin.

Multiple sources familiar with the deal confirm that Ilili is targeting a June opening inside at 100 District Square SW. Ilili signed a lease in fall 2019, but the COVID-19 crisis cast doubt over the future of the project. The group is renegotiating its lease with landlord Hoffman & Associates in light of the new business climate, and a revised deal has not been fully executed yet. There is a chance the partnership might not materialize at all. A representative for the restaurant group declined to provide further comment on its potential D.C. arrival.

The 5,000-square-foot space is about the same size as Ilili’s grandiose New York flagship, centered around an amber-glowing dining room. Part of the renovation of the existing configuration calls for extending the glass partition to cover more of the patio area overlooking the waterfront, and the renegotiation process includes figuring out which party — Ilili or the landlord — will foot the tab.

Chef and principal owner Philippe Massoud has ties to D.C.; he helped open Mediterranean hit Neyla in Georgetown. It folded in 2014 due to lease issues.

Upon Ilili’s opening in 2007, the New York Times hailed it as one of the city’s most ambitious Middle Eastern restaurants in terms of scale and decor. Eater NY has considered it a top option for Middle Eastern food, highlighting memorable dishes such as the Brussels sprouts with grapes, fig jam, walnuts, and mint yogurt; mekanek-spiced lamb sausages; and ultra-smooth steak tartare, called kibbeh naye eeirutieh. Phoenician fries, doused with sumac and parsley, come with a potent garlic whip.

The 260-seat flagship reopened for indoor seating at 25-percent capacity on September 30, the first day NYC restaurants were able to do so since the start of the public health emergency.

During the pandemic, Ilili pivoted, with chef kits delivered across the tri-state area. The brand also maintains a presence inside NYC’s upscale Canal Street Market food hall, serving fast-casual Lebanese street foods, falafel, and shawarma under the moniker Ilili Box.

The glass-enclosed structure at the Wharf, built for Isabella’s fine dining hit in 2017, has been empty for nearly two years. In late 2018, Isabella’s landlord at Requin filed an eviction suit alleging that the embattled chef fell behind on his rent during the same year his once-massive group of businesses slipped away in the wake of a sexual harassment settlement with a former manager. A judge handed down an eviction order in February 2019.

Former Eater D.C. Chef of the Year Michael Rafidi cooked from a contemporary French menu at Requin before parting ways with Isabella and moving on to open Albi, his wood-burning, modern Middle Eastern restaurant in nearby Navy Yard.

Massoud and co-owner and his brother Alexander Massoud are natives of Beirut, Lebanon. They mobilized an emergency disaster relief effort following the devastating explosions in August. The campaign raised over $47,000.