After fleeing from Afghanistan in the early 1980s, 3-year-old Omar Popal and his siblings moved with their parents into the InterContinental Hotel in Bahrain.
While their father worked in the hotel’s sales department, Popal and his siblings, ages 1 and 5, learned the ins and outs of good service.
“As kids, we hung out in the back tunnels of the hotel, seeing exactly how everything was done,” said Popal, now 34. “There was so much attention to detail. Even as kids, we could see that.”
Now, with the opening of the family’s third restaurant, the siblings have put their observations to good use. Malmaison, which opened quietly in January as an events venue, will officially open in the coming weeks.
The 4,100-square-foot building — originally an ice factory and later a gym — overlooks the Potomac River. The Whitehurst Freeway passes overhead.
“The concept we had from the beginning was Meatpacking District-meets-Paris,” Popal said. “With each new restaurant, we're getting a little bigger.”
Ten years ago, the Popal family opened the popular Cafe Bonaparte in Georgetown. Popal — then 23 and working as a investment associate at Merrill Lynch — and his siblings came up with the idea. They found a 900-square-foot space, hired a pastry chef and set up shop.
“Most people assume that our parents started everything, but it was the other way around,” Popal said. “We were the servers and the bartenders and the managers. If the dishwasher didn’t come in one day, we’d do that, too.”
Popal’s parents, Zubair and Shamim, who now live in Fairfax County, helped finance the venture.
“Nobody wanted to give us a loan in 2003,” Popal said. “As immigrants, it’s not like we came here with a lot of money. We did everything ourselves and we did it on the cheap.”
Cafe Bonaparte grew incrementally from a cafe and creperie into a full-fledged bistro and lounge.
In 2007, following its success, the family opened Napoleon Bistro in Adams Morgan.
“Our business model has always been: Open up one [restaurant], become profitable, then move to the next,” Popal said.
With Malmaison, the family is taking on new territory. While the restaurant will have a cafe, patisserie and bar, the Popals say it is primarily an open canvas for weddings, art shows, musical acts and corporate events.
“It has so many different identities, depending on the time of day you come here,” Popal said. “We’ve kept it as a big white box, so you can just come in and make it your own.”
In all, the restaurant will seat about 50 and accommodate up to 500 for standing events.
Today, Popal and his parents run the business full-time. Mustafa, Popal’s older brother, works for the State Department. His sister, Fatima, is temporarily abroad in Afghanistan. But everybody helps out, the Popals say.
“Growing up, these guys were always talking about having their own restaurant,” said Zubair Popal, 63. “I didn’t believe them until I saw the keys to Cafe Bonaparte. Now we’re on restaurant number three, but there’s still so much more than can be done in a city like Washington.”