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Generational Gastronomy at Del Merei Grille

Del Ray eatery celebrates its 2-year anniversary as owner Mary Abraham faces new challenges.

Mary Abraham and her mother, Laura, are sitting at a table near the long, dark wooden bar at Del Merei Grille, the contemporary Southern cuisine eatery Mary owns in Del Ray. They represent two generations from a family of food: Great grandparents who owned a butcher’s shop on King Street; grandparents who turned a watering hole named Freddy’s Café into an institution called The Vienna Inn; their son Mark and his wife Laura, proprietors of Monroe’s, a popular “American Trattoria” on Commonwealth Ave. in Del Ray; and Mary, who along with childhood friend Eric Reid will celebrate the second anniversary of Del Merei’s opening on Feb. 15.

Is Laura happy that the restaurateur tradition has continued through her daughter’s generation?

“Oh, yeah.”

Mary sends a sarcastic glare at her mother. “Don’t lie,” she cuts in with a deadpan tone. “She says it’s actually a defective gene I’ve inherited.”

Del Merei is located in the shadow of the Calvert Apartments at 3106 Mount Vernon Ave., formerly the site of the Calvert Grille — yet another facet of the family's culinary legacy, as Mary’s aunt and uncle owned it “when it was good,” she said. Its sale in 1997 sent the former neighborhood haunt into a spiral of three different ownership changes and a rapidly diminishing reputation, to the point where Abraham said she was embarrassed to admit her family used to operate it.

“This was the space where I had my very first job in the restaurant business,” said Mary, looking around the Del Merei bar, which was once a Calvert Grille “kid’s room” where young customers could draw on the paper-covered walls.

Abraham is discussing her family’s history at the Calvert when her eyes dart to the left and her face lights up like a hostess on a busy Saturday night. “Hi!” she exclaims. A man walks over and greets her like an old friend, explaining how he hasn’t seen her since her wedding last fall and how he’s heard it was a “great time.” They go to a corner of the bar to talk about a fundraising partnership for a local organization.

It’s a scene that's replayed each time Abraham works the Del Merei dining room, from old acquaintances from her days at Alexandria Country Day School to new friends made during dinner at “The Del.” She is a charismatic hostess, a gracious owner and the tireless public face of a burgeoning business.

“Mary thrives on this, and she’s such a people person,” said Laura Abraham.

Perhaps that’s the most frustrating aspect of her diagnosis.

LAST MARCH, Mary Abraham said she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, becoming one of 90 million Americans living with the autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. She’ll have months when she’ll feel great, and then weeks where blurred vision and a disoriented equilibrium will prevent her from working at the restaruant she cherishes.

“I’m Mary of Del Merei. It’s really hard because I know 90 percent of our clients, and they all come asking ‘Where’s Mary?’” she said, “and I don’t want to tell them, because I don’t want sympathy and stuff.”

She said she knows that stress can trigger symptoms, and that her doctors are urging her to work less. For a year and a half after the restaurant opened, Mary Abraham worked seven days a week. Even now, she claims one night and one full day off, with many other days working from 9:15 a.m. until around midnight.

Reid’s sister-in-law Elizabeth works the door when Mary’s not there. “She's so important to the restaurant. I had a really hard time giving up [control], but it’s family. It’s the only reason I can sleep and relax,” said Abraham. “I’m trying to leave work a little bit earlier. But I’m not at a point where I can’t be here.”

Her mother said the disease can be unpredictable. “We’re not a full year into her diagnosis. It’s been rough these last few weeks, but her neurologist keeps telling us that you go through these bumpy roads and that other times he won’t need to see you for three year.”

When asked if the diagnosis may have been a sign that, at age 27, and with a new husband, it was time to slow her frenetic pace, Mary Abraham said, “I stopped kind of asking why, because that’s when you start feeling sorry for yourself.”

She doesn’t seek sympathy, but she’s received plenty of support. Since last March, one blessing she’s counted numerous times is having a friend and partner like Reid to depend on. “It’s been our biggest challenge, and why it’s so important to have the relationship that we have,” she said.

REID AND ABRAHAM have known each other since they were about 13, growing up in Alexandria. She said many customers are convinced they’re an item; the fact that Mary married his brother last November and is now “Mary Reid” just complicated things.

“Everyone, through this whole process, has thought we’re together. Now I don’t even know how I’ll keep it straight,” she said.

Abraham grew up on Davis Ave. near George Mason Elementary School. She attended Alexandria Country Day School — which sends plenty of business to Del Merei thanks to her alumni status — and went to T.C. Williams with Reid. There, she was intensely involved with student life, so much so that she was only an infrequent worker at Monroe’s during its early years. “I was pretty self-centered. They were going through massive stress getting the place open,” she recalled.

Abraham was a regionally recognized coxswain for the Titans crew team, and attended the University of Virginia after being recruited by its Div. 1 rowing program. After graduating UVA, where she studied sports marketing, she moved down to Raleigh, NC and started with a small marketing firm. Laid off after 9/11, she tried her hand at real estate, and eventually moved back to Virginia to practice it. That’s when she reconnected with Reid, who had been working at the Evening Star Café for two years and taking culinary classes on the side.

That “defective gene” in the Abraham family began to fire — could these childhood friends one day open their own local eatery?

Abraham figured her culinary aspirations would wait for a few decades, especially after she landed a “dream job” with Sports Illustrated in Manhattan. Living on the Upper West Side, she loved the buzz of New York, but not the worker bee salary. “To have had a high-paying job and then be at a point where it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I’m eating cereal tonight if I want to go out’…that was nuts.”

Eventually, something clicked for her: “Long hours? No money? Of course: the restaurant business.”

Abraham returned home to discover the Calvert Grille was vacant. After convincing her parents to stake their initial funding, she and Reid started a major reconstruction project. A photo album the duo kept speaks volumes: It had a decimated dining area, rusty basins in the kitchen and plumbing that had to be replaced to the sidewalk. They also redid the storefront, adding a revolving door “which is more expensive than most people’s cars,” she said.

A year and half later, Del Merei was ready to be unveiled.

BUT WHAT, EXACTLY, does Del Merei mean?

“Del” comes from Del Ray. The second name, they said, needed to be something personal.

Mary and Eric combined? “Meric,” which Abraham said is “kinda cheesy” and was rejected.

But there was another option. Eric always had “E. Reid” on his cooking uniforms — drop the ‘D’, add an ‘M’ for Mary, and you’ve got “Merei.”

Of course, most patrons just call it “The Del,” which is fine by them. It’s just another example of the eatery’s affable connection with its community — an Abraham family tradition if there ever was one. Monroe’s is usually packed with local food lovers who keep coming back. The Vienna Inn became a neighborhood institution on her grandfather Mike Abraham’s watch.

Del Merei offers a quaint dining room, perfect for either a romantic night out or a joyful group outing. The other side of the restaurant could be a corner pub on a city street corner — a gorgeous, fully-stocked bar with several tables surrounding it. Both rooms feature Abraham’s New York-inspired décor: Contemporary and cool, but neighborhood and friendly.

“We wanted to be that neighborhood spot, but we also wanted to serve the freshest food,” said Mary Abraham.

Freshest, but with a little fun. Like those signature Vienna Inn chili dogs on the Del Merei menu ($7), whose blend of flavors has made them an addictive classic for regional bar crawlers. “It’s a turkey dog that’s cooked in Budweiser beer. There’s actual coffee grounds in the chili,” said Abraham.

Reid, 28, recalled the first time he tried the dogs at the Inn with Abraham. “The first time we went out there, she ordered two, and I’m thinking if she’s ordering two, I can do four,” he said.

“I got through three of them.”

Reid was a successful sous chef at the Evening Star Café before creating Del Merei’s take on Southern cuisine. “Eric put a gourmet spin on common, comfort food,” said Abraham.

Like Frickles ($4), a starter featuring fried pickles in a spiced remoulade; or his braised beef BBQ ribs ($19), served with slow-cooked collard greens and baked mac-n-cheese, a top seller; or the popular grilled salmon ($17), which can be paired with everything from apple butter baked beans to creamy garlic cheese grits. Reid keeps a permanent dinner and lunch menu, but adds seasonal offerings as well.

“We’ve got that fine line of not being over-expensive, but at the same time serving the best food and not selling ourselves short,” said Abraham.

SERVING AND PREPARING this food is, well, a small army, with 31 people on staff. Some are students; some are husbands and wives trading shifts in the kitchen. Typically, there are five people in the kitchen, two bartenders and four servers on a busy night.

There’s a sense of family on this staff, just like there’s a sense of family each time Mary Abraham flashes a smile at a familiar face entering The Del. “It’s her personality, but it’s also family roots and being native Alexandrians,” said Laura Abraham, whose husband Mark grew up in Alexandria. “We’re known in the community, but Mary’s made her own mark.”

On Feb. 11, 2005, Mary Abraham and Eric Reid opened Del Merei Grille four days before its official unveiling; a night to work out some bugs and get some feedback. “We had a friends-only thing,” she said, “and we have a lot of friends, so we had a packed room.”

And they kept coming back; at a time when so many new restaurants struggle to take flight, business was steady at Del Merei from Day One. “Those scary first nights weren’t as scary because of them,” recalled Abraham.

For Mary Abraham, friends and family took the fear away.