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The new Dolce Vita looks like a blast from the past. Its owner just wants diners to be happy again.

The bustling main dining room at Dolce Vita Coastal Mediterranean Cuisine in D.C. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post)
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Unrated during the pandemic.

Anyone missing the carefree days before covid-19 crashed our collective party might do themselves a favor and book a table at Dolce Vita Coastal Mediterranean Cuisine, the vibrant new fusion restaurant from Washington restaurateur Med Lahlou. Starting with a big oval communal table with sunken wine coolers, signs of happier days surface everywhere you look in the two-story successor to Ghibellina on 14th Street NW.

At a time when many restaurants are pinching pennies to control costs, Dolce Vita welcomes diners with flowers on tables and a bread basket trailed by a trio of spreads: hummus, red pepper and black olive for eating with brioche, focaccia and other house-baked items. Nearly 20 mezze launch the menu, and the entrees include a showy lamb shank served on a slab of tree. A row of raised tables set in an alcove allows occupants privacy and a view of the goings-on. “Perfect for Instagram!” says a host, one of many enthusiastic caretakers at Dolce Vita. Even the hours of operation read like fantasy. The restaurant is open every day of the week, and until midnight Friday and Saturday.

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Really, the only evidence of an ongoing pandemic is the sight of the masked staff — all of whom are fully vaccinated, and got paid time off to do so, reports the owner. (Readers who are avoiding indoor dining will have to wait awhile to get a taste of the new restaurant, which doesn’t offer takeout or delivery at present.)

“We want to make people happy,” Lahlou says. He sees extra touches like flowers and bread as a way to help diners forget almost two years of chaos. “We’ve been to hell.”

His antidote is his biggest restaurant yet. Dolce Vita can host as many as 400 diners, although 160 is the most the restaurant will accept right now. The newcomer, part of a family of six establishments around town, including the nearby Lupo Verde and Lupo Pizzeria, is also the owner’s most ambitious. The son of a French mother and a Moroccan father, Lahlou sees Dolce Vita as a way to “do my heritage” with an assist from Greece, Italy and Spain. His mentor was Greek, he says, and his sister’s husband is from Spain.

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Yes, that’s a lot of territory to embrace. Lahlou has in his favor corporate chef Juan Olivera, 42, originally from Uruguay. The day-to-day presence in the kitchen, executive chef Elier Rodriguez, 38, comes to the project with a résumé that counts some impressive stops, including Del Mar, the grand Spanish destination at the Wharf, and class acts Le Cirque and Picasso in Las Vegas.

Menu descriptions only hint at what to expect. “I like to get out of the comfort zone,” says the Cuban-born Rodriguez. His spanakopita takes the shape of an egg roll rather than a slab, for instance. Otherwise, it’s still flaky pastry encasing molten spinach and feta cheese — just in the form of fabulous finger food. Piquillo peppers stuffed with crab take a moment to identify when the appetizer is delivered; the scarlet centerpiece is hidden beneath a lacy round tuile, stained black with squid ink. The peppers are positioned on sauces of tomato and piquillo, for extra tang and sweetness.

Greek salads are enjoying renewed attention of late, with the version at Patty O’s Cafe & Bakery in Washington, Va., being the standard-bearer. In the District, Dolce Vita serves the most elaborate example. Conjure a hedge of the usual suspects with dolmades and mizuna tucked in for good measure. Garnishes are taken seriously. Thinly sliced cucumbers are rolled up like scrolls and capped with what looks like caviar but turns out to be black balsamic “pearls.”

The eyes have it here — and sometimes, so does the palate.

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Sometimes. Chicken is not your friend here, and I say that as someone who likes chicken roulade and loves chicken tagine — when they’re done right. The roulade at Dolce Vita was greasy when I sampled it — everyone who tried it appeared to get Vaseline lips — and its sidekick, a soggy pastilla “cigar,” only reinforced the disappointment. The best part of the tagine were the potato matchsticks scattered over the chicken. Otherwise, the dish has none of the complexity or pucker of the Moroccan classic. Indeed, my cloud thought read “boil-in-a-bag.”

Some theater rewards the recipients of the two best entrees, both cooked in a wood-stoked oven and, as their prices suggest, sized to share.

Nearly a pound of lamb shank is revealed from beneath a cloche filled with smoke, which disappears to find brilliant roasted rainbow carrots hugging the fist of chive-freckled meat, its flavor ramped up with a paste of harissa, garlic and paprika. The lamb ($49) is displayed on a puddle of mashed potatoes that are as much butter as vegetable. A little meat pushed on a spoonful of spuds is sheer comfort.

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Simpler, but no less sublime, is whole dorade baked in a salt crust that the chef seasons with Moroccan spices to infuse the fish with flavor. The dorade ($65) is freed from its sarcophagus at the table, filleted and served with confit peewee potatoes perfumed with thyme and garlic. The restaurant’s walls come with murals of famous sunny coastlines; the fish does a nice job of completing the thought.

Your best exit strategy is Spanish, as in churros. The sugar-sprinkled wands of fried batter arrive with a trio of dips — caramel, chocolate, coffee-fueled creme anglaise — and don’t last long at the table.

A fleet of staff, some in suits, work the long main dining room as if it were a club filled with VIPs. (The music gives Dolce Vita the sense of a lounge, too.) Like the cooking, the evolving wine menu spans a swath of the globe. Dry January finds some of us taking a break from drinking and others intent on drinking less but better. So when a drinker at my table asked for something special to pair with the lamb shank, a manager returned with a glass of barolo, off the bottle list. Very thoughtful.

Really, you don’t even have to step inside to get the sense you’re welcome. From across the street, the name of the restaurant is dwarfed by four, story-size blue letters on the facade: LOVE.

Dolce Vita Coastal Mediterranean Cuisine 1610 14th St. NW. 202-506-4872. dolcevitadc.com. Open: Inside dining 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Prices: Appetizers $10 to $28, main courses $28 to $65. Sound check: 75/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can push a button outside, signaling staff to bring a portable ramp; restrooms have grab bars but sinks are positioned high. Pandemic protocols: Owner Med Lahlou says his entire staff of about 70 employees has been fully vaccinated. Some have had booster shots.

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