Ask veteran restaurateur Med Lahlou about his start in Washington, D.C.’s dining scene, and you’ll end up taking a whirlwind trip down memory lane. “My first restaurant was Tunnicliffs Tavern, which opened in 2000,” he reminisces. “At one point, I used to have ten restaurants in D.C. I sold three of them—Bullfeathers, Stoneys, and Ulah Bistro.”
He’s come a long way now more than two decades later, when his eponymous restaurant group, Lahlou Restaurant Group, runs some of the district’s best Italian restaurants that include Lupo Verde and Lupo Verde Osteria in the Palisades.
His latest is no exception. Dolce Vita opened its doors in November in the former Ghibellina space on the buzzing 14th Street Northwest D.C., paying homage to Lahlou’s cultural heritage and upbringing.
“My mother is French, my father is Moroccan, and my great grandfather on my mother’s side was Italian,” he says. The resulting concept—and Lahlou’s sixth restaurant in the district—is a fusion of coastal Mediterranean cuisine and a celebration of his rich roots.
“We pick up spices from Morocco, ingredients like octopus from Spain, and mix it with gnocchi from Italy to create a dish like our gnocchi gallego,” he says.
The restaurant has quickly earned rave reviews in D.C.’s local papers, thanks to its late weekly dining hours, an inventive mix of cocktails, and ambitious dishes that are full of flair and flavor. Here’s what to expect from the eclectic menu.
Lahlou’s menu revolves around mezze and grilled meats and seafood from a wood-fired oven, highlighting coastal fare from Morocco, Italy, Spain and Greece. “The dishes are all about the spices, the presentation, and taste,” he says.
Start with the spanakopita, a flaky, savory pastry filled with spinach and feta, and the Greek salad with stuffed-grape leaves and halloumi, before moving on to the 24-hour braised 14-ounce lamb shank, served in a smoke-filled cloche with mashed potatoes and a lamb tagine-jus reduction.
Presentation is everything at Dolce Vita. For those looking to try something different at dinner, Lahlou recommends the quail with black truffle shaving, potatoes, carrots, and a confit egg yolk. “The truffle quail is amazing—it’s two baby quails stuffed with foie gras,” he says of the equally theatrical dish that’s served with edible gold leaf. The potatoes, which are cut into thin strings, resemble a nest for the quails to rest on the plate.
Dolce Vita’s Mediterranean fusion extends to its signature cocktail list. Topped with a fragrant sprig of mint, the Moroccan spritzer features gin, Italian bitters apéritif, arak, mandarin, mint syrup, prosecco, and club soda. “It pairs perfectly with the gnocchi,” Lahlou says.
Both the food and decor at Dolce Vita transport you directly to the Mediterranean coast. “You don’t even feel like you’re in DC,” Lahlou says of the restaurant’s vibrant dining areas, complete with charming coastal landscapes painted on its brick walls, plush ocean blue seating, and an Italian-tiled façade through which diners get to view the goings-on of the bustling open kitchen.
“You feel like you’re somewhere in Europe, somewhere in the Mediterranean,” he says. Upstairs, an intimate dining room features pearl chandeliers and European magazine collage pieces of art.
Dolce Vita is open daily for dinner, with happy hour at the bar weekdays from 3 pm to 6 pm.