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Idylwood Grill’s Ben-Abdallah is All About the Details

IDYLWOOD GRILL’S HEDI BEN-ABDALLAH has been hosting and serving Falls Church diners in Pimmit Hills since 2005. (Photo: courtesy Idylwood Grill)
IDYLWOOD GRILL’S HEDI BEN-ABDALLAH has been hosting and serving Falls Church diners in Pimmit Hills since 2005. (Photo: courtesy Idylwood Grill)

Details are what set apart the good from the great, and the great from the exemplary.

Dedication to the most minute details is what Idylwood Grill and Wine Bar owner Hedi Ben-Abdallah uses to elevate his cozy neighborhood restaurant to a revered status amidst the area’s prominent food scene.

But this wasn’t a trait Ben-Abdallah was born with.

Like many successful people, he needed a tough lesson early in his career. When applying for a managerial opening at the Holiday Inn in his 30s, Ben-Abdallah was passed over because he failed to understand every aspect of the business.

“The corporate food and beverage [representatives] had a meeting with me and told me ‘Hedi, I know you think you know everything, but you’re not ready yet,’” Ben-Abdallah said. “They asked me, ‘Do you know the different cuts of meat?’ I was like, ‘Uh, no.’ And they said ‘Voila, you see! You need to know everything before we can put you in charge.’”

From then on, knowing the cuts of meat served as symbol for Ben-Abdallah’s revised focus in the industry. Already a stellar bartender with gravitational charisma, Ben-Abdallah began training himself to see the big picture within the establishments for which he worked. This mentality is what guided him from the Holiday Inn to the Ritz-Carlton in Washington D.C. and eventually to the general manager position of the private Georgetown Club in 2000.

As a general manager, he learned everything about the restaurant business, from washing dishes and mopping floors to dealing with committees, taxes and public relations.

He also believed in karma, and his kindness to other restaurateurs was rewarded when they connected him with their purveyors to help him get started. Now that he had the money to make it happen, it was time to take the leap.

In 2005, Ben-Abdallah finally made good on the dream of starting his own restaurant — a vision he’d endlessly professed to his kids. He landed at the Idylwood Grill’s current location in an unassuming but homey venue in a strip mall just off Route 7. Ben-Abdallah stocked the staff with familiar faces such as imaginative head chef Marvin Hernandez, who worked alongside him at the Georgetown Club.

Investing in his employees may be the savviest decision Ben-Abdallah made as a new restaurant owner. It allowed him to come to grips with his role while delegating responsibilities to other people more equipped to handle them.

“Being a restaurateur is like being a conductor,” he said. “You cannot do everything; you cannot play all the instruments. Surround yourself with good people and let them do the work. You’re going to take all the credit anyways — you’re the owner!”

Deciding on a menu was also a delicate dance to master. Ben-Abdallah’s native Tunisia possesses a kaleidoscope of cultural influences from throughout its history. The ancient Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Spanish, Ottomans and French colonists all controlled the North African flatland at one point, each leaving its mark on the nation’s palette. Merging his homeland’s rich history with French-influenced culinary stylings, Ben-Abdallah sought to seamlessly integrate these diverse cuisines into the restaurant’s offerings.

Of course, Ben-Abdallah makes sure to feature items unique to his Tunisian upbringing. Whether it’s the “merguez” (lamb sausage) he cut down from hanging racks in his childhood kitchen or a weekly dinner special of “branzino” (sea bass) that he consumed frequently in his coastal hometown of La Goulette, Ben-Abdallah has peppered the menu with the flavors closest to his heart.

Idylwood Grill has been blessed with rave reviews across multiple websites, but that glow is offset by the monthly treadmill of financial hurdles. Ben-Abdallah likes to say most of the problems in his business can be solved with personality or experience. When it comes to monthly expenses, however, you either have the funds or you don’t. This part can be challenging, he said, given his restaurant’s low-key persona.

“We are a neighborhood restaurant, like it or not,” he said. “Sometimes we’re busy and sometimes we’re dead. It depends on the mood of the neighborhood.”

But Ben-Abdallah would never let that get him down. He’s living out his life’s ambition — and doing it on his terms.

On a recent night, the chef sauntered around the rustic interior of his Mediterranean-inspired restaurant with his jet black hair and infectious smile greeting everyone from first-time guests to weekly regulars.

But even with his charm and wit captivating those who grace the Grill’s premises, Ben-Abdallah never loses sight of the real star of the show.

“Let’s admit it, what’s our name? Restaurant, so let’s not take ourselves too seriously,” he said. “People come for me? Hell no. If the food is [bad] they won’t come. It’s not called a ‘Hedi,’ it’s called a ‘restaurant.’ We have to be good at that first and foremost, then the other things come into play.”

Idylwood Grill & Wine Bar | 2190 Pimmit Drive, Falls Church | idylwoodgrill.com