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

Co-founder Arianne Bennett and her dog, Dax, at Amsterdam Falafelshop in Adams Morgan. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

As soon as you enter Amsterdam Falafelshop, you can see the changes the pandemic has wrought to this late-night institution, the place that helped wean Adams Morgan off its 3 a.m. diet of pizza slices the size of twin mattresses. You spot the usual pumps of hand sanitizer and Plexiglas dividers, of course, but mostly you notice what’s missing: the exuberant, 22-option spread of dips, salads and pickled vegetables, all of which tempted you to drown your falafel balls in a sea of coral-colored toppings.

The pandemic ruined all that. The number of toppings has been scaled back, and the staff now packs your pita or bowls based on your selections, a sign that self-serve bars have not come all the way back.

Yet something else is missing at Amsterdam Falafelshop, too. Or, more precisely, someone else. You might have watched him, pre-pandemic, working behind the counter, or you might have seen him camping out on the shop’s patio when the coronavirus tried to drain the life out of everyone in the neighborhood, and beyond. He radiated megatons of energy, as if this shop and this world could not contain him.

He was Scott Bennett, co-founder of Amsterdam Falafelshop and the unofficial ambassador of cool, an artist, musician, scuba diver, restaurateur, storyteller and the center of gravity wherever he stood.

He is no longer among the living, and I wanted to take a moment this week to acknowledge his death and the hole it has left in Washington’s restaurant community — and in the life of the woman who continues to hold Scott’s dream.

For 2½ years now, the dining community has mourned the things the pandemic has taken from us: our neighborhood restaurants, our beloved bars, our favorite dishes, our sense of restoration in public places, our ability to sink into pleasure without worry. Yet as profound as these losses may be, many will eventually be replaced by other restaurants and bars, by favorite new dishes or by the healing nature of time itself.

Scott, however, is a pandemic casualty whose loss is impossible to measure and, based on the sheer amount of mourning for him on Facebook, impossible to replace. I don’t mean he was irreplaceable as a restaurateur — because who is truly irreplaceable in their job? — but as the kind of person who embraced the essence of the industry: He had this ability to translate his passions, whether for food or Calvados or restaurants, into something that friends, family and diners could grasp. He had an innate talent for bringing people together in what many would eventually call “Scottie’s World.”

“Scott brought people along in everything in life,” says Arianne Bennett, his wife and business partner. “Scott would say, ‘Oh, you haven’t been scuba diving before? Well, I’m going next month. You should go with me.’ The dude would go, ‘But I’m not certified.’ ‘Well, you have five weeks, man. Let me tell you where you get certified.’ There was no saying ‘no’ to him.”

Scott died Jan. 13 at age 70 from complications of covid-19, even though he was fully vaccinated and boosted. On the day he died — alone, unconscious, paralyzed on a ventilator — Arianne was beside herself. She had survived her own bout of covid, only to lose the person who had been by her side for decades, even before August 1991, when she and Scott were married on the grounds of the Maryland Renaissance Festival. She had lost, as she explained to me, the man who “brought the light and the happiness and the joy.”

Eight months after Scott’s death, Arianne, 53, is still figuring out how to move on. Their shop, which continues to produce superb falafel despite its self-imposed limitations, remained open on the day Scott died, not because Arianne was in any shape to work but because the employees, led by manager Beatriz Ortega, demanded it. They told Arianne that Scott “would not want us to close.”

People continue to ask Arianne whether she wants to keep running the shop. The question seems to be laden with assumptions: that operating the business will only remind her of Scott, that she will have to shoulder more responsibilities, that the shop was Scott’s brainchild, not hers. As Arianne will attest, she didn’t even like falafel before she tried it in Amsterdam during a trip with her husband.

Yet to Arianne, the question is naive. It doesn’t understand the complex relationship between her and Scott. She met him at Center Cafe inside Union Station, where they both worked. She was 20 and still in college. He was 38 and previously married with children. He had served time for selling drugs in California. She attended Catholic schools, including Georgetown Visitation and Catholic University (from which she graduated with a degree in psychology). She was a rule follower. Scott, mostly self-taught, was a rule breaker. They complemented each other in ways neither could have predicted.

“He wasn’t a guy to be kept in by boundaries. He wasn’t the guy to be told, ‘That can’t be done,’ ” Arianne says. “He was the guy who was like, ‘Let’s try it.’ I was the girl who was like, ‘Okay, but let’s try it a little more legally. Let’s try to observe the rules a little bit because I don’t want to go to jail.’ ”

Arianne, she remembers, was sometimes affectionately known as “le petit commandant.”

Scott was the visionary, and Arianne was the one who could execute that vision. That’s how it worked with Amsterdam Falafelshop, which they launched in 2004. The shop was Scott’s baby, but, as Arianne quips, she was “the babysitter.” She still is. She handles payroll, social media, purchasing, basically all the administrative work. When Scott and Arianne decided to franchise Amsterdam — a plan that, in retrospect, wasn’t worth the struggle, she says — it meant even more work for Arianne. She negotiated contracts. She wrote manuals. She taught franchisees.

“This was his passion and his dream, and I did everything I could for the entire time to support him in it,” Arianne says. “I would not put it down because he’s gone.”

As we sit on the patio in front of Amsterdam on a warm afternoon in September, Arianne picks gnats from her coffee and tries to put the couple’s working relationship into perspective for me. Yes, Arianne shouldered many of the day-to-day burdens, but Scott had his roles. He made shopping runs. He developed ideas. He represented Amsterdam at all events because, as Arianne says, she doesn’t drink and doesn’t like to stay out late. Scott also gladly played the role of househusband when she was swamped with work.

Mostly, though, Scott brought the joy to their relationship, and right now, Arianne is struggling to create that for herself. The memories are still too thick, like the last time she saw Scott in person at George Washington University Hospital, where the couple was admitted when they contracted covid in December. Someone had briefly parked Scott’s bed next to Arianne’s, with a curtain between them, while the staff searched for a room for him. Once the couple realized they were together, Arianne crawled into his bed. She didn’t realize it would be the last time she’d touch him.

Arianne says she cries all the time. But she doesn’t cry alone. She has a therapist to help with the grief. She also has her dog, Dax, who has become more protective of her since Scott’s death. She even has her Adams Morgan friends and neighbors, several of whom greet Arianne from the sidewalk during our interview. One tells Arianne that she looks great. Another spontaneously blurts out that she loves her.

“I can’t imagine my life without [Scott], and yet I’m 53 years old and I know that there’s at least 30 years of life in front of me, as many years as we were married,” Arianne says.

So she’s working on making herself happy. Joy, Arianne is learning, doesn’t come from religion or exercise or some tangible object. It comes from moments of spontaneity, which was Scott’s specialty. She’s playing a lot of music, loud, in their apartment above Amsterdam Falafelshop to generate a little joy. But that only works, she says, if she follows one rule: She can’t play any music that she and Scott listened to together.

Amsterdam Falafelshop, 2425 18th St NW. 202-234-1969.

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