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San Francisco Chronicle

October 12, 2012

Mourad Lahlou inks a deal at 140 New Montgomery

By Paolo Lucchesi

“I want it to feel like a San Francisco restaurant.”

Mourad Lahlou is standing in his new restaurant space on the ground floor of the historic Pacific Telephone Building, where the chef-owner of Aziza just signed a lease for the 6,600-square-foot restaurant space.

“I want it to have a sense of place,” he says.

For months now, the entire Pacific Telephone Building — designed by Timothy Pflueger in the 1920s and an Art Deco landmark skyscraper — has been undergoing a substantial renovation, preservation and seismic upgrade, scheduled to be completed in September 2013.

The 26-story building sat empty for years until Stockbridge Capital Group and developer Wilson Meany — the same Wilson Meany who rejuvenated the Ferry Building — purchased it and the nearby parking garage for $117 million. Yelp procured eight floors for its headquarters earlier this year, and half of the 25 floors of office space are already filled.

There are two restaurant spaces on the ground floor, both lining New Montgomery and also spilling out onto a rear area that will eventually be a garden courtyard. Both have 19-foot ceilings and several dramatic 12-foot windows facing the street. Exposed brick and concrete abound.

The smaller of the two spaces, about 2,400 square feet, has no signed deal yet.

As of today, the other is Lahlou’s.

“It’s a great space, first of all,” says architect Olle Lundberg, who will design the restaurant. Indeed, it’s a space that was coveted by many big-name chefs and restaurateurs, even though it never went on the open market.

Diners will enter from New Montgomery into a good-size bar and lounge area. Like at Aziza, there will be a full liquor license. Walking away from the street, the main dining room (roughly 110 seats) will be split into series of sections, as opposed a sprawling room. Further back will be the kitchen. A mezzanine overlooking the entire dining area and kitchen will be used for private dining. Including the courtyard — inspired by the outdoor dining vibe of Morocco — Lahlou expects to have nearly 200 seats.

As such, the size will dictate the food to a certain extent. Since the due date is still far off — September 2013, if not slightly sooner – the food details will crystallize as the opening gets closer. But there will be no tasting menus; Lahlou’s signature take on Moroccan cuisine will likely be more approachable than what’s currently served at Aziza. That said, it will still be tight, says Lahlou.

“I don’t want the space to be a shrine. I want a good vibe, good music,” he says. He doesn’t yet have a name, although “Aziza” and “Mourad” are two early possibilities.

As for the design, Lundberg and Lahlou want to showcase the quirky, historic building, with Moroccan overtones. They’ll keep the big windows, exposed bricks and the like.

“The goal is to figure out how we’re going to design an abstract version of what [Lahlou] loves about Moroccan architecture,” says Lundberg.

“That’s what he’s doing with his food,” he continues. “He started with traditional elements and evolved into his own style. Our goal is to do the same thing with the architecture.”

It’s no secret that Lahlou has been looking for a downtown space since he nixed the 500 Jackson deal a year ago. Now that he has found one, the question again is the fate of the current location of Aziza in the Richmond at Geary and 22nd Avenue.

That’s TBD at this point, but one thing is certain: With 22 years left on a long-term lease, he’ll be staying there. Down the road, there may be a name change or a concept change — a Moroccan Jewish restaurant perhaps? Stay tuned.

Expect updates in the coming months on both the current Aziza and its future sequel.

Read the original story here.