Mourad Mazouz is a veteran restauranteur with a brutally honest streak that is almost as recognizable as his North African-inspired cuisine which can be sampled throughout the world. He first cut his teeth in the business in 1988 with the opening of the Parisian outpost, Au Bascou. Within three years, the establishment won bistro of the year. There were countless other successes along the way; 404, named after his favorite Peugeot, in 1990, Momo Restaurant Familial in London in 1997, sketch with three Michelin-starred Chef Pierre Gagnaire and Andy Wahloo with artist Hassan Hajjaj in 2002, and Double Club in London and Derriere in Paris in 2009.
While distinctly different experiences, the common through-line was Mazouz's affection for his North African/Algerian roots which he allowed to shine through regardless of expectations of the overarching restaurant theme. His latest, Mo Diner, which is scheduled to open in London in 2020, is an attempt to reenergize diner culture — albeit with a Mediterranean twist.
For the massive undertaking, Mazouz enlisted the help of Brian Roettinger, a veteran LA-based creative, who serves as Creative Director and Partner of Willo Perron & Associates. Together, they searched for the unmistakable attributes of a diner experience, while making sure to avoid tropes that would make it feel like the dining experience was "themed." The result is something truly special and unique.
We recently caught up with both Mazouz and Roettinger to speak about the ups and downs of designing Mo Diner.
What are some of the specific challenges of opening up a restaurant space in London versus other major metropolitan cities across the world?
Mazouz: The restaurant scene is a nightmare. I always compare it to a movie. It takes two or three years to put the idea down — to write the script for the restaurant — to make it happen, build the things, ideas, all the detailed stuff and everything. And after two or three years of this nightmare, when you have your knees on the floor, you don't own the film anymore. It's to the public.
It's a nightmare to open a restaurant in London because the rent is super expensive. It follows a bit the system of New York today. Every five years they increase the rent. The rates are huge. The taxes are huge. You need to pay for everything compared to Paris. Here you need to pay a pick up company for your trash. In France, you pay a lot of tax, but at least everything is included. Also, the huge problem in London is the lack of staff. And now with Brexit, that's my biggest scare. So to really try to build the team, it's very, very, very difficult. In London, I need 12 staff to do 150 covers.
Can you explain the joy you feel when the concept, food, and people all come together? What does that experience feel like as a restauranteur?
Mourad: I will surprise you: it's a nightmare. Every day. I can lie and tell you its wonderful. 50 percent of my time is being a psychologist. I need to talk to the staff to make sure that they are okay. We really need to take care of them and to make sure that we have enough staff to do the job because it's a job that you cannot do alone. So it's not really a big pleasure to have a restaurant. But the good side of it is you learn a lot.
The beauty of having a restaurant is that I know how to build a house. I know electricity, I know mechanical, I know psychology. Almost every detail you need to learn by heart if you want to do it well.
So on one hand it's a nightmare, on the other hand you learn so much. You change a lot. It's a lot of sharing and loving. So it's love/hate in a way.
Brian, what was your thought process when you entered this process? I know you have a very diverse background in terms of design. What was your first thought when this came across your desk?
Roettinger: There were a few things. Right off the bat was how everything that we were going to make for the space had the right emotion which could create a connection to the overall restaurant experience. It was really looking at every little detail and how we could have a sense of humor. It wasn't that we had one specific vision. It was like, "let's just try everything and try to make this big sort of mess of things."
In most restaurants, they have one logo, one color palette, one particular style of photo, etc. We wanted to make this extreme sort of expression that also didn't feel like it was finished. Mourad and I have talked about this; maybe it just felt like there was a lot of things that were in process. So over time, we can still keep adding things to the restaurant. Over the years, we can build this massive visual language like when you go into a museum and there's different types of paintings, different styles, different color palettes, different scales. You have all these different sort of visual experiences. That was something we wanted to get from the beginning.
You designed many albums over your career. Do you see any connection between that work and designing a restaurant? Is there any relationship or is it something completely different for you?
Roettinger: Every project for me is different. I don't have a very particular process where I check the boxes. If there are any boxes, it starts with the conversation, an idea, research, developing, and then back to conversation and research. It's sort of this ongoing swirl of a tornado and as things get checked off and made, we go on to the next thing.
From certain projects, there's a connection, but ultimately the final output of what we make is different. But in the end it's still about finding an emotion, solving a visual problem, creating a visual language, having a very particular, or a handful of particular aesthetics that we want to achieve, certain typefaces that we want to use, certain colors we want to stay away from or use.
I saw some of the preliminary photographs of the restaurant interior. One reminded me of the final scene in The Sopranos. Is that what you try to evoke? In a restaurant setting, do you want people to recall past memories while forging new memories? Is that sort of the sweet spot for you guys?
Roettinger: I think any piece of design is going to evoke a memory. Everyone's going to remember the first time they experienced an album cover and it's going to take them back to that moment. A particular scent is going to take you back to a moment. Anything visual is going to take you back. As a designer you can't avoid that because that's going to happen.
When we're dealing in aspects of space, graphic design and art direction, the mixing of those worlds is going to bring people back, or bring people to another head space.
But that's always a good thing if you can evoke a feeling, evoke a memory, or evoke an emotion. If you don't, then things are easily forgettable.
Mazouz: I wanted the design to trigger personal memory. It's funny that you talk about The Sopranos because I love that show. I wanted a place which is familiar to everybody. I didn't want people to be put off by something too pushed and too designed. In five years the place will look even more beautiful because the wood will be used, and some of the color will be faded. All that will make this place a bit more familiar for people. Same for the food. The food needs to be very simple and very familiar.
What was the genesis of the idea?
Mazouz: Six years ago I was in New York and I was reading The New York Times and there was a huge article about the fact that the diner is disappearing. Diners are closing down and the culture of diner is dying. So because they are dying, maybe it's time to recreate or reinvent or redo a diner for 2020 with a modern twist.
I wanted to trigger the personal memory of people by doing a diner. I wanted to have a place that is familiar through all these senses I mentioned. It was really about that. That's why I did the diner.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
Mo Diner 23 Heddon Street London W1B 4BQ United Kingdom
Mo Diner is open seven days a week from 8am to midnight. Breakfast is served from 8am to 12pm, followed by an all-day menu from 12pm to 12am.