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Mourad Lahlou said he doesn’t believe in ghosts. When it comes to business decisions, of which he’s made many in San Francisco over the years, he said he tries not to be emotional.
But he does believe 5800 Geary Blvd. is a San Francisco place with an actual soul.
Lahlou spent 15 years there running Aziza, one of the Bay Area’s best restaurants, before closing it in 2016 with plans to begin a new culinary venture in the same space. Yet despite his best efforts to move on from Aziza, including plans to open it as a Moroccan-Mexican restaurant, Lahlou now admits he couldn’t shake the restaurant’s ghost.
On Oct. 21, Lahlou will reopen it — as Aziza.
The choice, he said, was never his own.
“While I was out of the country over the summer, the last of the construction on the location was finished and I thought that was it, I would walk in and see the changes and let go of the past,” Lahlou said. “I walked in and was immediately like ‘f—, it’s Aziza.’ I realized Aziza wasn’t dead at all.”
Named after Lahlou’s mother, Aziza opened in 2001. The restaurant quickly became a pioneer of both California cuisine and Moroccan food in America.
The 2016 closure was initially intended to be a temporary closure, while Lahlou opened his blockbuster downtown restaurant, named Mourad. At the time, Lahlou had thoughts of pouring about $300,000 into the former Aziza space to spruce it up and then reopen the doors to the public. Instead, he said, something was pulling him to just close down. Looking back, Lahlou said it may have been issues in personal life that spurred along that decision.
“If I’m being honest, when I closed Aziza for a remodel, I had a fallout at home with my mom. We ended up not speaking for about the duration of the construction. But when I got engaged, my fiance told me I should go home and make peace with my mom,” Lahlou said. “So I went to Morocco. I saw my mom and it was amazing. Everything was fixed. We got in a really good place. Aziza is a reflection of that. It shows where I am in my life.”
During the years-long window where Aziza was under construction, a process that was stalled by numerous permitting and construction delays, Lahlou had plans to turn it into Amara, a Moroccan-Mexican restaurant. Set to run it by his side would was his longtime friend and business partner, Louis Maldonado, who earlier this year left for an executive chef role at the Gibson at the Hotel Bijou.
An extensive amount of construction has happened at the restaurant, namely fixing the building’s plumbing and electrical issues. The floors have been re-tiled and new paint has been added throughout the space. The bar, previously located in the front of the building, has been moved to the back. Lahlou said he wanted to make sure there was extra space for folks in the dining room.
Aziza’s 2019 iteration will be casual, rustic and focused on a la carte options similar to Aziza in the early 2000s, Lahlou said. His first Aziza became more upscale and refined as it aged, a process that led Lahlou to open his Michelin-starred fine dining destination Mourad in San Francisco’s PacBell Building in 2015.
“I opened Mourad and it felt like an evolution. Basically, you get this seed, you plant it, you get the fruit and once the fruit is exhausted, you take the seed and start again,” Lahlou said. “Mourad took on a life of its own, building its own relevancy in the food world. But I never forgot about Aziza during that time, wondering what was would be next for it.”
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To best describe how Aziza in 2019 is aesthetically different than Aziza in 2001, Lahlou compared it to the restoration of a Moroccan riad, a Moroccan home, usually with multiple stories, that often centers around an open-air courtyard.
“When I got the Aziza space, I was so broke. It took everything out of me in 1999. I literally just didn’t have the money to do everything I wanted to do, like fix the floor which was jacked up from the previous business, just like the plumbing,” he said. “Now, it’s a much better restaurant. It’s less busy. You can describe it as less is more. We took more out of the space which added to how it looks.”
Lahlou said the new Aziza menu is still being tweaked. It will feature many of the dishes that made the original Aziza iconic including its lamb shank, various spreads, meatballs, cucumber salads and more.
The path to reopening Aziza, complete with its fits and stars, is indicative of the history of the restaurant Lahlou said. Despite its success over the years, nothing came easy. Lahlou said the struggle, the joy, the pain all associated with Aziza just pulled him back to it.
“It feels like coming home,” he said.
Justin Phillips is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @JustMrPhillips
Aziza: Opening Oct. 21. 5800 Geary Blvd. San Francisco.
This story has been updated to reflect Aziza’s new projected opening date.