Amsterdam Falafelshop co-founder Arianne Bennett and her dog Dax at the Adams Morgan restaurant in September. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
4 min

Amsterdam Falafelshop was fast-casual before fast-casual was cool. Before most folks had even heard of the term, Scott and Arianne Bennett introduced countless Washingtonians to the concept of a DIY meal with their Adams Morgan shop dedicated to fried chickpea balls packed into a pita with your choice of toppings — much like the snacks they once enjoyed in Amsterdam.

Their restaurant, tucked into a converted rowhouse on 18th Street NW, opened in 2004 and almost immediately became a hit with clubgoers looking for an alternative to the jumbo slices that many consumed in those hazy, early morning hours. As the years passed, Amsterdam Falafelshop would become an institution: a place where people met, maybe fell in love or got engaged. For a brief period, the Bennetts even worked on turning the concept into a chain, with seven locations, including shops in Washington, Clarendon, Dallas, Annapolis, Boston and Miami.

That was then.

On Monday, Arianne Bennett announced that the original location will close on May 27, setting off waves of grief online to a generation of diners that sobered up or hooked up inside the brick building in what was once party central in Washington. It was the only location owned and operated by the founders. There is still a franchise outlet in Miami, soon to be the last one standing.

“It’s the place where people met drunk in line and fell in love, and came back and got engaged. It became a part of their lives in the way that restaurants sometimes do. And I was so proud, and Scott was so very proud of that. He was so proud of that,” Arianne said, her voice trailing off, verging on tears.

Amsterdam Falafelshop and the art of moving on after a broken heart

The conversation is still difficult for Arianne. Her husband and business partner died in January 2022 at age 70 of complications from covid-19. Amsterdam Falafelshop was Scott’s dream, the one that his wife nurtured for nearly 20 years, even after his death and in her grief.

As with countless restaurants, the pandemic was brutal for Amsterdam Falafelshop. In the early weeks, “I watched the bank accounts go tens of thousands of dollars negative,” Arianne told me last year. “Like, I had a complete nervous breakdown.”

The pandemic changed the way that Amsterdam went about its business. No longer could customers garnish their own falafel balls from a vast spread of toppings. The staff now had to do it for diners, from behind a plexiglass divider. Arianne held fast to that modified approach even as the city opened up and restrictions were eased. She lived in fear that one of her employees, such as Beatrice Ortega, might catch covid or pass it along to her children.

“I can’t live with the thought that she could get sick and die and her children would not have a mom,” Arianne told me.

But the streamlined shop held its own. Arianne had talked with her landlord about buying the building, where she not only worked but also lived upstairs with her dog, an Italian mastiff named Dax. But the landlord was asking for $2 million, she said.

“It’s just so far out of my price range that I could never make that happen,” Arianne said Monday. “So it’s better for all of us if we just bail out gracefully and try to have a next chapter.”

Arianne is not sure what her next chapter will be, but she would love to work in D.C. government, using her two decades of experience to help small businesses. She also still owns the Amsterdam Falafelshop concept. She’d like to find a buyer and see it live on for the next generation.

But she has no plans to resurrect it herself.

“I am crushed by the last couple of years,” she said. “It’s just too much. It would be different if you were just continuing on, but to start again, it’s more of a lift than I can do. I would be glad to help whoever does it and be there for them and mentor them. With great love, I would pass this on to them.”

A friend has offered to put up Arianne and Dax in an apartment until she figures out her next moves. Despite all her losses, Arianne, 53, said she is “strangely hopeful” about the future.

“I’m sad” over the closure, she said. “But I’m okay. And that’s all you can be. And by the way, the worst thing in the world that could have ever happened to me has already happened. That was losing Scott. Everything else — as horrible or painful as it is — is really, in relationship to that, not nearly able to take me out at the knees.”