A prime piece of waterfront real estate at the Wharf will soon be filled by an upscale Lebanese restaurant from New York. Ilili is gearing up for a summer debut of its mezze menu and lush garden decor in the former Requin space that’s sat vacant since the implosion of Mike Isabella’s empire in 2018.
Chef/owner Philippe Massoud is no stranger to DC. He lived here from 1999 through 2005 overseeing Georgetown Mediterranean-Lebanese restaurant Neyla. (Fun fact: he not only cooked there but also DJed on weekends). In 2007, he opened Ilili in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. The restaurateur has long been interested in expanding, but it wasn’t until the Wharf team approached him pre-pandemic that he decided to make the move back to DC. Having grown up as “a fish on the Mediterranean as a child,” Massoud says he was drawn in by the waterfront locale as well as the evolution of DC’s food scene since he was last here.
But the global health and economic crisis temporarily put the project in doubt. “I didn’t even know if my business in New York was going to survive,” Massoud says. “I’m not going to lie to you, I had some sleepless nights. Raising money for the project was not as easy because you have some people who themselves were not seeing the end of the tunnel… As a testament to the concept and its following, we were able to raise the money and get the project going under extremely difficult circumstances.”
Given the smaller footprint in DC, the mezze-heavy menu will be condensed but still carry over plenty of Ilili staples. Among the popular dishes to look out for: duck shawarma, Beiruti kibbeh naye (a steak tartare with mint and bulgur topping), and fried Brussels sprouts tossed with sherry vinegar and dressed with fig jam and mint yogurt.
As an ode to waterfront locale, Massoud plans to emphasize seafood, such as whole earth-baked branzino or yellowtail sashimi with wasabi-infused baba ganoush and pomegranate ponzu sauce. He’s also got a Lebanese-style paella in the works, too. There were will also be a lamb burger and several sandwiches, including a fried chicken option. “When I was a kid, my dream was to get Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beirut,” Massoud says. In Lebanon, the fried chicken is served with pickles and toum (an emulsified garlic whip), so his version will be an homage to those memories. The restaurant will be open for dinner to start, and eventually expand to brunch and lunch.
The decor will be a big departure from the cedar-paneled look in New York. The whimsical, high-ceilinged DC space will have an enclosed patio filled with trees, an indoor water fountain, and bird cages. Custom-made tiles and furniture are being imported from Lebanon and Europe. Massoud says he drew inspiration from lush courtyard gardens he remembers from his childhood in Lebanon.
“Odds are somebody had a bird of a canary somewhere there, and you sat outdoors and it was beautifully peaceful and you smelled the roses and enjoyed life,” Massoud says. “We wanted to go back to that beautiful period of time before the world went to shit.”