Inside the glass-enclosed building that serves as the crown jewel of DC’s Wharf development on the waterfront, a brand new Lebanese restaurant offers a visual feast before customers even open their menus. Within the 4,500 square meters that make up Ilili, there is a large limestone fountain that first flowed in Provence, France, in the late 19th century. The bubbling centerpiece is one of the few pieces of the restaurant that was not made in Lebanon. Citrus trees rise out of square, green-painted plantations. Suspended birdcages full of steel pigeons with light bulbs for heads floating overhead. Daisy tiles covering the floor anchor the room with bright dolls of blue and white.
“We tried to create an enchanted garden in the courtyard of a beautiful home in old Beirut,” says chef and main owner Philippe Massoud. “This is not your Disney-style corporate restaurant. This is a restaurant with soul and passion. ”
Ilili, one of Wharf’s most ambitious projects to date, opened at 100 District Square SW on Thursday, October 7, with a menu full of modern meze, saffron-infused Negronis and Chesapeake touches like blue crab falafel fritters that can be added to hummus.
Aside from the modern, glassy exterior, the self-contained space is unrecognizable from its short life as Mike Isabella’s French-themed Requin. To take advantage of his million-dollar view of the waterfront, Massoud completely tore down the interior to open a view line from the entrance to the pier. An outdoor addition with high-tech retractable windows provides seating on the front row of boats that tilt on the Potomac River.
Maximizing ceiling height to 25 feet allowed the design team to go all the way out, explaining jumbo birdcages hovering seven feet off the ground.
“We wanted to glorify them a little more. It’s huge, so the cages became our light, ”says architect Nasser Nakib, who collaborated with DC-based design studio 3877. Nakib jokes that unless Kareem Abdul-Jabbar enters,“ everyone is safe. ”
Nakib also designed the original Ilili, which is still running after 14 years in the Flatiron district of New York. In this space, an amber-lit dining room is packed with beautiful burgundy chairs that draw on the Phoenician empire for inspiration. Ilili’s second place takes a softer approach and goes back to the innocent childhood days when Nakib and Massoud grew up in Beirut.
“Tragically, Lebanon is heartbreaking history right now,” Massoud said. “It is a country that is hostage to the militia [Hezbollah] and the mafia, which is the political elite. They have stolen Lebanese [of billions]. It’s bankruptcy and people are suffering a lot. ”
To support people at home, Massoud sought out Lebanese artisans to shape as much of the decor as possible. It includes the copper base that runs under a 25-foot, marble-topped bar, hand-woven backrests in floral patterns and floor tiles. Placing the runway for each hand-painted pigeon took two days alone, Nakib says. The winged symbol of peace is a theme from the start, with a picture of pigeons and orange trees on Nakib’s stepfather’s farm welcoming guests near the front door.
Other personal details from Nakib include a cheerful, blue and yellow tile design in the bathroom, modeled after the wallpaper in his mother’s old bedroom. For a domestic touch, the restaurant used canned wood from a tobacco barn in Massachusetts to frame the bar. Indoor greens can help diners offset the winter blues.
The 128-seat space seats 20 in a cocktail area and 10 in the bar. The Lebanese restaurant adds a growing selection of cuisines on the quay, offering options for Italian (Officina), Mexican (Mi Vida), Spanish (Del Mar), Pan-Asian (Kaliwa) and French (Bistro du Jour will soon open).
“The view is truly majestic, and I think it was known for so long that it created a slightly dull corner,” Massoud says. “Now you have everything you need and do not have to travel anymore – you can make one nation at a time.”
Massoud plans to take his staff on a trip to Turkey, Istanbul, Greece and Lebanon to explore Mediterranean history and cuisine on his own as post-pandemic travel conditions improve. For now, he is pleased with how his new restaurant will impress visitors.
“With all the negativity we’ve been through, I would do anything to turn it around, come here and feel like you’re being transported … [through] the space, the food and the service, ”says Massoud.