By Jennifer Rader, Contributing Writer
“Hospitality is the Art of Making Others Feel Welcome, Comfortable and at Home. It is the Talent for Spreading Warmth and Kindness that will be Remembered Always.” This mantra is printed on each exquisitely detailed menu at Bistro L’hermitage. It is truly the life motto of the restaurant and its atmosphere as well as its soft-spoken owner, Youssef Eagle Essakl.
The name “Bistro L’hermitage” is academically deﬁned as “a small restaurant, an isolated place.” To step inside this Occoquan restaurant, though, which has become known as an esteemed purveyor of ﬁne French cuisine, the deﬁnition rings hollow. And to hear its story further conﬁrms the notion that “an isolated place” must refer to another time in the restaurant’s past.
On the outside, Bistro L’hermitage resembles a small house with touches of red and regality; inside, it is an indescribable mix of formal, yet cozy neighborhood ambiance, while still maintaining a rustic feel. You don’t want to wear a T-shirt and jeans to Bistro L’hermitage, but a suit and tie isn’t necessarily the dress code either.
White, crisp tablecloths, fresh roses, a formal place setting and candles or small lamps adorn the tables, and if Essakl doesn’t personally greet you, a member of the waitstaﬀ, dressed in a vest and tie, will. The interior of the restaurant can be deﬁned as bright but intimate—even on a sunny afternoon lunch appointment—with its various degrees of low lighting. And within minutes of entering the bistro, you know this is the type of place you want to bring friends—many diﬀerent friends— over and over again.
An Endearing Place
After greeting and bidding a sincere farewell to a steady stream of customers, Essakl sidles into a beautifully appointed corner booth, mentioning that he’s embarrassed to be sitting down in front of the customers—it’s something he just doesn’t do. But ﬁnally settling into discussion, there is so much endearing about Bistro L’hermitage and Essakl’s story you want to remain to hear more and visit as often as possible.
Restaurateur Youssef Eagle Essakl came from Morocco to the United States in 1985 and was fortunate to land a position with James Beard Award winner Robert Kinkead at 21 Federal in Washington D.C.—a restaurant named by Esquire magazine as one of the “25 best new restaurants in America” (it went out of business in 1993). So began a 25-year apprenticeship in D.C. ﬁne dining establishments, which included the present day Marcel’s in the West End and various incarnations of the restaurant in the Watergate Hotel. In fact, Essakl was tapped to run President George W. Bush’s Watergate Hotel restaurant of choice, modeled after Jeﬀrey’s of Austin, and assisted First Lady Laura Bush and her staﬀ with various events during their ﬁrst term in oﬃce.
All of these inﬂuences culminate at Bistro L’hermitage where, as Essakl declares, “rustic lasts longer,” but maintains that hospitality always has to be comfortable.
Feeling the desire and prepared to create a nice place for people to enjoy, establish employment opportunities and contribute to the economy, Essakl found ﬁnancial roadblocks at every turn when he set out in 2003 to open Bistro L’hermitage. Even armed with a business plan, a full resume, letters of recommendation and a large amount of equity, commercial lending through the banks was a challenge. Like many business owners, Essakl borrowed from friends and family to remodel the quaint cottage at 12724 Occoquan Road.
To say Essakl’s heart and every part of being are in the creation of Bistro L’hermitage is an understatement. For approximately four years, he cultivated and nurtured the then-rundown location to its present day beauty. He sanded, by hand, doors he had salvaged, and fashioned them into tables, set stone into the walls, laid ceramic tile on the ﬂoors, sewed beautiful draperies and refurbished both restrooms to a French chic anyone would envy.
On Dec. 26, 2007, Bistro L’hermitage opened amid a recession, and within months became a successful eatery in the area, catching the attention of Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema. “The residents of Woodbridge disappointed all the critics,” says Essakl, smiling.
Why Not Prince William?
When asked what motivated him to open a French restaurant in Occoquan, Essakl gushes, “Why not Woodbridge? This area was in so much need for a non-chain restaurant (that serves) good food.”
Essakl’s respect and appreciation for the Prince William County community run deep. He sees each of the area’s residents as members of his own nuclear family.
“Woodbridge has the sweetest people I have met in my life; some of the best clientele I have met in my industry,” Essakl says. “They are well traveled, intelligent, educated people.”
Chef Dawn Burkart, a graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine, joined Bistro L’hermitage a couple months after its opening when the initial hire didn’t work out. She and Essakl had worked together years prior at the Watergate Hotel, and after several calls, emails and a visit, Burkart found herself heading south of Washington D.C.
The menu at Bistro L’hermitage is not overwhelming but gives a nice variety for a four- to ﬁve-course meal, and includes an ample selection of international wines and traditional French coﬀees. Burkart’s dishes are no-nonsense and oﬀer real personality through taste. Diners are not disappointed with the dessert menu, either, which is truly a treasure.
Bistro L’hermitage rarely advertises. A majority of the Bistro’s business is word of mouth, which Essakl says is working. The restaurant has been listed in Washingtonian’s “100 Best” and on OpenTable.com’s “Top 10” of D.C., Maryland and Virginia. (OpenTable, a restaurant review site that ranks strictly customer reviews, has Bistro L’hermitage listed as #2 in the state of Virginia for French cuisine.) And Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema has consistently included Bistro L’hermitage in his top picks for the area. What’s more: Bistro L’hermitage was the only Virginia French restaurant picked to be included in the Washington Post’s recently published Fall Dining Guide.
Essakl refers to his place as a “woman magnet,” and his espousal can’t be far from the truth. On any particular day, a majority of Essakl’s customers are women who have brought friends or family members to the bistro. Once male customers visit, though, they too soon return. President and CEO of Woodbridge-based FRU- CON Construction Company Clement V. Mitchell remarked in a personal letter to Essakl, “The excellent food, excellent staﬀ and warmth of your personality have made your restaurant our home away from home.” Mitchell has brought members of his board, many of whom are from Germany, to Bistro L’hermitage on a regular basis as well.
Essakl’s restaurant, Bistro L’hermitage, is a picture of comfort, hospitality, inspiration, determination and a passionate belief in success. Not many would bank on opening during a recession or in a sleepy D.C. suburb, but Essakl has and has done so successfully. As he puts it, “If you believe in it, don’t give up.”
A nonproﬁt development director for 10 years, Jennifer Rader nowworks as a freelance writer and consultant. She lives with her sonand husband in Manassas and can be reached at email@example.com
February 2011 prince william living