In January, Chef Mourad Lahlou opened his second restaurant, the self-titled concept Mourad located in San Francisco’s historic PacBell building. The massive construction project was three years in the works before he finally opened the doors — and that’s when the real work began.
Mourad is a huge departure from Aziza, the restaurant that Lahlou opened in 2001 and became the first-ever Moroccan restaurant to receive a Michelin star. Aziza is cozy and comfortable and caters to locals; Mourad is a destination in the heart of downtown. While the dishes at Aziza are inspired by Lahlou’s past, those at Mourad reflect his here and now. Aziza’s interiors are modest; Mourad has sky-high ceilings, a majestic dining room, and painstaking architectural and design details. (Think hand-sewn patchwork rugs against elegant tile floors, modern lighting meant to evoke night markets in Marrakech, and textured walls that honor Morocco’s traditional homes built of clay and hay.)
We sat down with Lahlou in the private dining room at Mourad to talk about the first six months of his business — challenges, evolution, and what’s next on the horizon.
Tell me how the concept for Mourad originated and how it relates to Aziza. What were you wanting to do next?
I opened Aziza in 2001, and it was literally a step towards evolving Moroccan food. I went from cooking traditional Moroccan food before, and I was like, it doesn’t really sit well with me. It doesn’t make sense to eat traditional Moroccan food in the middle of the Bay Area; I’ve got to be true to what I am and what I want to do and what I like to eat.
So, we started doing modern-ish Moroccan food at Aziza. The restaurant is named after my mom. I said, all this stuff started because of my mom and her way of cooking, so we should name after her. And we did.
But being there for almost 15 years I felt a lot of frustrations, because I found myself cooking food for the restaurant that my mom would never eat. It became more of my food than anything else. This is the food that I eat, this is the food I believe in, this is the food that comes from my heart. That’s why the restaurant is called Mourad. It’s that transition from a general idea of what she would be cooking to pretty much what I like to cook.
Which is what?
A kind of cuisine that is heavily rooted in Morocco, because of my upbringing, but I left Morocco when I was 17 and I’ve lived in the States ever since. So I’ve lived more years here than I lived in Morocco. And most of my years in Morocco, half of them I was not even aware what was going on. I was a kid! But all my years here, I’m really conscious of what I want to do and where I’m headed.
I feel like I grew up in the Bay Area more than I did in Morocco. I think the food should represent that. And I think it really draws a lot of inspiration from Morocco, but it has a really strong foundation and basis in the Bay Area. It’s San Francisco food, for sure.
So that’s where the concept came. We were approached about this space; it was never on the market. We accepted the offer that they gave us. They vetted I think 44 chefs, or something? And then finally they approached us that we were picked, and we were very thrilled with that. And we took it.
But you started planning the restaurant, and then it was another three years before it opened. What was the delay?
The building had to be… it was a shell.
It’s a historical building.
Yeah. So they had to preserve the shell of the building and then they built a state-of-the-art building within the shell. That took them a year and a half. So we couldn’t really do anything for a year and a half. And then once it was done, then we had to raise money, we had to get permits, we had to line up everything… and then it took us seven months for build-out.
So when we got this space, it was literally like a box of concrete. There was nothing — there was no mezzanine. It was not like three years of building the restaurant; the restaurant just took like a little bit over six months to build. But then raising money is a big project.
How did you go about the fundraising process?
I didn’t hire anybody to do it. I pretty much did it myself. I went to friends; my friends referred me to other friends. It was just like, grassroots — nobody getting involved and introducing me to strangers or anything like that.
Tell me more about building out the space. This is so incredible architecturally — what was your vision, and what did that entail?
I wanted to have a situation where the building itself would reflect what I’m trying to do food-wise. It’s a historic building; it screams San Francisco. It’s art deco.
I went to Morocco with my architect and we spent 12 days there. We really came back with a lot of ideas, but we wanted the space to be San Francisco. It’s that dilemma between, is it a Moroccan restaurant, is it a California restaurant? It’s the same thing with the food. It’s really a gray area. Some dishes are more San Francisco than Morocco; some dishes are more Morocco than San Francisco. But it came to a point where we wanted the space to reflect that, to achieve some harmony. You can see hints of Morocco, but they’re not in your face, like this is a Moroccan home. That’s what we were trying to achieve.
The tree root — we saw it in Morocco. We looked all over the world to find something similar to that.
What were your initial thoughts when you saw the building?
Holy f*ck, this is a huge, massive project.
Is that something you were excited or nervous about?
I wasn’t nervous. I was just like, this is a huge project to a point where it’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of project. This is not the kind of thing that comes around every day.
What were things that you couldn’t do because it was a historical building?
We can’t attach anything to the walls because they don’t want them to get damaged. We can’t change the windows to be more efficient, because they wanted to preserve the feel that people had in 1926 when they were walking by here on the way inside. If it was a single-pane window, then it’s got to be a single-pane window.
We couldn’t have certain kinds of curtains, we couldn’t have certain kinds of lights. We couldn’t have the door moved. Anything that has anything to do with the stone or the brick, we couldn’t touch. It was really crazy what they were asking. You couldn’t have the restaurant open into the lobby, because when the lobby was built in 1925 people did not have a restaurant next door.
So it’s not just the architectural aspects, it’s also the culture of the building.
Yeah. Like, this is stupid to have single-pane windows. It’s costing us money; it’s costing the city money. But they’re OK with it to preserve that feel.
Have you changed anything since you opened?
Little things: adding light switches here, moving tables around.
Have you added any seating?
No, we’re trying to take away some of the seating. Upstairs, there’s a huge mezzanine room, but we never thought that it would be a situation where we would need to have a service station upstairs. So right now, if a table is bussed they will bring the dirty dishes downstairs. But we need to have a service station. We need to have water so that if the pitcher of water is empty you don’t come all the way downstairs. We’re taking like three tables to have a service station.
We might turn this alcove here [on the main floor, next to the private dining room] into a kitchen. We’re going to open the patio in the fall, and when that happens — the kitchen is so maxed out right now that we never thought it would come down to that — but we need to have another kitchen to service the patio. That’s something that needs to be done in the next couple of months.
And you’ll add on more staff, too.
Of course. There will be servers and managers. It’s crazy. It’s a beautiful patio.
On that note, what about your staffing? Have you changed your staff at all over the past six months?
F*ck yeah. When you open a restaurant you never know when you’re going to open. It’s always being delayed. We were supposed to open in October, then it went to November, then it’s December, then we didn’t end up opening until January.
Why was that?
It just delays with little things. We were waiting for final inspection, and it was the holidays with Thanksgiving, Christmas. People are away.
You could never have a situation where you could have a brand new staff for a place this big; hire, train, and all of that; and know they’re going to work out. We did everything we could, and at the end of the day we took the best people we could find and we hoped for the best. When we opened — that’s when you really see who’s capable and who’s not capable. On paper everybody looks good, but when we opened some people couldn’t do it. They completely changed, because they were frazzled and they were making mistakes.
We ended up letting go of pretty much the whole staff — the front of the house. The back of the house is in tact. But the front of the house, we pretty much had to let go everybody. We kept maybe three or four people.
But then it’s such a time commitment to find all these new people and train them, too.
We hired everybody four or five weeks before we opened, trained them, did training every day — two hours for food, two hours for service, two hours for spirits, two hours for wine. It was, like, massive training. And you’re just hoping these people are going to work out. And the city is so saturated with restaurants that there aren’t many good people out there.
I think this sh*it is going to implode one day. Because restaurants are opening, and the city has gotten so expensive that people are moving out of this city. And you can’t have a situation where you have these beautiful, fancy restaurants with beautiful food, but nobody can make it and nobody can serve it. It’s really a crazy situation that we’re in.
At Aziza, I used to put an ad on Craigslist for a server, and I would have 50-60 people waiting outside the door before we opened for the interview period between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Now, you put an ad up and nobody shows up.
And that was probably 10 years ago?
Ten years ago, yeah. And there’s all these startup companies that are basically promising everybody to become a millionaire within years, so a person who’s just 23, who used to be a perfect candidate for a server or a bartender will say, should I do this or should I go take my chances with this company and I might become a millionaire in three years and retire before I’m 30? What the f*ck do you think they’re going to do? They’re going to do that.
So we hired all those people, we opened with them, we did the best we could, but we realized very quickly that we needed to get better service. The customers demanded it. It was the last four months, what we’ve done is weeded out the bad apples, the people who could not perform. It literally took four months of hiring every day. Every day.
Are you looking for different qualities than you were before?
No. This is really a nice restaurant, and people expect a lot. So it’s kind of hard to find the experienced staff, people who really care about service. People who really think that being a server or a bartender is a profession. You can’t have people working here who are just doing it for a year, because they’re going to college or spending a year in San Francisco. They just don’t care enough to really appreciate service. We really need to find well seasoned servers who are also cool, and they get what’s going on. It’s hard.
Did you pluck anyone from Aziza?
No. Aziza is, like, perfect. I felt like people who worked there, they deserved to be there and they’re well established and they have their positions.
And no one came to you wanting to work at Mourad?
A couple did. And they realized quickly that it’s two different restaurants. And I really wanted to make the two restaurants separate.
I don’t even want people to come here and see familiar faces, and say, this feels like Aziza. Because it’s not Aziza. And I really needed to make that distinction clear from day one.
Are your customers at Aziza different from your customers here?
So different. Aziza is mostly people who are real foodies; they’re passionate about food, about the history of food. They’re extremely involved in the farmers’ market and all of that. And they come in because they want an experience, a food experience.
It’s in a neighborhood, so we don’t get a lot of tourists. We don’t get a lot of business people. Here, it’s a completely different clientele. We still get those people, but we also get the business people whose eating habits are different, whose schedules are different.
Because of their different eating and drinking patterns, is your sales mix different at Aziza than it is here?
Yeah, we sell a lot more wine here than we do at Aziza. Aziza, when people are there they’re typically driving their own cars and they look for parking, they get in, they eat, and they leave, so they don’t drink a lot. Here, they’re around hotels so they’re just within walking distance. Most people, they Uber.
Not too many people are valet parking here. They’re taking Uber. There’s no limo driver waiting outside; those days are gone.
Do you still have the valet parking?
Yeah, we still do. But before we opened we were negotiating with the parking lot next door: “We need at least 50 spots every night.” We do like 20 cars, 30 cars. But we were thinking that 50 was not enough.
What have been your biggest challenges overall with Mourad? Are there any that you didn’t have at Aziza, or that you didn’t anticipate?
When we opened Aziza we were always looked at as being a homey, neighborhood-y restaurant. Expectations were high, but the expectations here were astronomical.
Everybody expected perfection from day one, which was impossible. We really worked hard to get there, but there was no way until you actually open the door and work out… And I think we will still evolve. I think we are really in a good place right now, but it will keep changing and getting better.
Staffing is still priority number one. We need to keep hiring people. We’re going to open for lunch next month, so it’s a brand new set of hirings and managers and servers and things like that. We will get better every day, every week, but there’s no way to open the doors and be perfect from day one.
And that’s one of the reasons we didn’t want to open for lunch initially, is we don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot. We want to get our feet wet with dinner and get used to the staff and the neighborhood, the eating habits of people around here, and then go into lunch.
Any more changes going forward?
Next is lunch, and then after lunch we’re going to do the patio.
How many seats are on the patio?
I think it’s probably going to be around 60 to 80. It’s huge. And then after that, hopefully I’m going to take a day off.
When was the last time you did that?
January 22nd. That was four days before we opened. I’ve been working seven days a week since we opened. It’s been brutal.
If you could describe the first six months in one word, what would it be?
Beautifully painful. It’s been beautiful to see this thing come to life and to be part of the whole thing, but it’s been painful to make it reach the potential that it can. I think that’s really accurate — because of staffing, because of the neighborhood, because of everything going on that is new to us.
We don’t want to be like any other restaurant. We want to do something special.
And that takes a lot of thinking, that takes a lot of hard work. It takes the key people to be in place, and those key people are crucial. It took us a while to find the right people. It was like giving birth. It’s a beautiful experience, a humbling experience, but there’s got to be pain.
You mentioned one of the challenges being the neighborhood — why?
The neighborhood is beautiful. It’s not so much that it’s a challenge, but it’s a different kind of clientele. They are people who are used to a certain level of dining and service, and when they’re coming here it’s a situation where you need to provide that. There’s no learning curve, there’s no forgiveness, there’s nothing. So if they come in, they don’t like it, they don’t come back.
If you’re a neighborhood restaurant, you can go back even if something was off and you give that place a second try, third try. You get to know the servers, the managers, the owners. It becomes family. You accept it for what it is. Here, it’s a stage. You need to perform at the highest level every single night.
Are you still cooking every night?
How do you split your time between here and Aziza?
I get up in the morning and I go to Aziza, and then around 11:30 or 12 I’ll head back here, and I’m here until one o’clock in the morning.
About that vacation day…
Make it happen.
Photo Credit: Alex Loscher