At Tia Queta, a Mexican restaurant on Del Ray Avenue in Bethesda, you never know who your waiter will be. “I used to joke I had the most expensive help of any restaurant,” says owner Roberto Montesinos, whose restaurant was one of about a half-dozen in town when he opened in 1980. “One of my dishwashers was my lawyer. My wife, a professor at American University, waited tables.”
When the restaurant got busy, friends who were dining there would get up from their tables and start waiting on customers—they still do. Montesinos likes to tell the story of a lawyer friend who helped out one night and was recognized by a potential juror in court two days later.
When the judge asked if anyone in the jury pool knew any of the parties to the case, “One lady says, ‘Your honor, I know that lawyer. He was my waiter in a Mexican restaurant,’” Montesinos says. “The judge says, ‘How was the food? Good?’ The lady says yes. ‘All right!’ says the judge.”
In a town that is increasingly attracting chain restaurants, many Woodmont Triangle eateries are still owned and run by local people who greet and treat their patrons more like friends and family than customers. Many of the restaurateurs built their businesses from scratch and have been around for years.
“Roberto treats everyone as if he’s known them for 30 years,” says Bernie Litchfield, who grew up in Bethesda and is still a regular at Tia Queta, even though he moved to Frederick 15 years ago. “It’s like going to an aunt’s house. You’re comfortable here.”
Customers have become like family, Montesinos says as he points out the colorful paintings, swords, Aztec figurines, papier-mâché parrots and bullfighting posters that patrons have brought him from their vacations over the years. “I have to put it up. They’re disappointed if they don’t see it,” Montesinos says as mariachi music plays in the background.
Woodmont Triangle has long been the hub of the Bethesda dining scene. More than 75 of Bethesda’s approximately 200 restaurants are within its borders, while 45 are in the Bethesda Row/Bethesda West area, according to the Bethesda Urban Partnership (BUP). Restaurants like Tia Queta, Trattoria Sorrento, Le Vieux Logis, Sweet Basil, Tragara Ristorante and Positano Ristorante Italiano give Woodmont Triangle its small-town charm and create much of its appeal.
“I prefer the ‘one-of ’ [a-kind] restaurants to chains,” Jim Martinko of Rockville says as he exits Sweet Basil on Fairmont Avenue after lunch on a Monday afternoon. “They have better quality, better service and better prices.” Martinko and his coworker, Henry Scott of Potomac, say they frequent unique restaurants such as Black’s Bar & Kitchen, David Craig and Grapeseed, all Woodmont Triangle establishments, when they dine out at night.
But these are difficult times for many of the eateries. Of 12 sit-down restaurants that closed in Bethesda during the past year, 10 were in Woodmont Triangle. A combination of factors, including rising costs, a slowing economy and competition from well-financed chains, is putting the squeeze on many of the small restaurants and raising the question, “Can the little guys survive?”
“I once served 840 people in a day,” says Luigi Traettino, who has owned Positano on Fairmont Avenue for 31 years. “I’m not getting those numbers anymore.” Fu Cheung, owner of Foong Lin on Norfolk Avenue, says his business declined 10 to 15 percent during the past eight years because of competition from Bethesda Row and the extension of metered parking until 10 p.m. In the past two years, business has been even slower, he says. “Last year was the worst year I ever had,” Cheung says.
Diana Dahan, owner of Le Vieux Logis on Old Georgetown Road, worries about chains, with their large advertising budgets and dining rooms that can seat hundreds; Le Vieux Logis seats 75. She’s competing, but “with great difficulty,” Dahan says. “The quality of food and service; you give the best you have to give, and hopefully people will have a special experience.”
The recent subprime mortgage crisis and the slowing economy have made Bethesda diners more cautious spenders, says Sonny Abraham, owner of Brasserie Monte Carlo on Norfolk Avenue. When he opened in 2000, his Saturday nights were booked two weeks in advance. Now, you can call the night before—sometimes even the night of—and get a table. “Bethesda will always have disposable income, but people are careful now,” he says. “It’s an ongoing struggle.”
The sour economy has inspired some of Woodmont Triangle’s small-restaurant owners to band together. Abraham says he can count on his competitors to loan him tables or napkins when he has a large party, or even to provide some foie gras when he runs out on a Saturday night.
Woodmont Triangle needs sidewalks wide enough to accommodate outdoor seating to bring back fair-weather customers who dine elsewhere in the summer, says Claude Amsellem, owner of Tragara Ristorante on Cordell Avenue. The restaurant business is so volatile, with eateries constantly changing hands, that every competitive edge makes a difference, Amsellem says. He believes his loyal clients, some of whom have been eating at Tragara since before he bought it 14 years ago, will see him through these rough times.
“Everyone thinks Bethesda is the best place in the world to open up a restaurant,” says Francis Namin, who has owned eating establishments in Bethesda for 15 years, including Centro Italian Grill on Bethesda Avenue (which he is in the process of selling) and Red Tomato Café on St. Elmo Avenue, which he owns with his sister, Fariba “Fay” Namin.“I have news for them: If you don’t have tough skin, you’re not going to survive here.” Smaller restaurants are feeling the pinch. Food costs have doubled during the past year, Namin says. Traettino, of Positano, says his real estate taxes have skyrocketed, while Dahan, of Le Vieux Logis, says she now pays a fuel surcharge on every delivery.
Part of the problem facing restaurants in Woodmont Triangle is that there are few consumer draws around them. Bethesda Row has Barnes & Noble, the Bethesda Row Cinema and countless shops. On a Friday or Saturday night, people pour out of the movie theater and into Bethesda Row restaurants. Some of the chain restaurants, such as Mon Ami Gabi, can serve 600 people on a Saturday night, Namin says. And with the opening of Bethesda Lane, Bethesda Row is likely to become even more attractive.
Woodmont Triangle has much less foot traffic at night and thus fewer potential diners. “This is the old side of Bethesda,” says Cheung, of Foong Lin. “It’s so quiet at night.”
Civic and business leaders are hopeful that the coming redevelopment of Woodmont Triangle will help. That redevelopment, which has been delayed by the economic slowdown, likely will include several condominium buildings and many new spaces for high-end retail and restaurants—all of which could bring more people into the area. But the redevelopment also will displace some restaurants and drive up rents in general. Just when there will be more potential customers in Woodmont Triangle, it’s possible many of the small restaurants won’t be able to stay.
It’s true that rents might go up when Landlords make major investments in their developments, but there is a flip side, says Dave Dabney, BUP’s executive director. “It’s a difficult situation. But if you’ve got more people and you’ve got more traffic, you can pay higher rents—you can support that,” Dabney says. Because the redevelopment will occur over a period of years, rather than in one fell swoop, as happened when Federal Realty Investment Trust leased the buildings that make up Bethesda Row, Dabney believes rents in Woodmont Triangle will not rise drastically. Right now, Woodmont Triangle restaurants pay $35 to $45 per square foot in rent; Bethesda Row space costs $60 to $75 per square foot. In return for higher rents, tenants will get brand new buildings full of potential customers, improved streetscapes and more foot traffic, Dabney says.
New customers needed
The news is not all bad. Many of the fine dining and chain eateries in Woodmont Triangle are doing well. Black’s Bar & Kitchen and Woodmont Grill (formerly Houston’s) bustle during lunch and dinner. Newcomer Black Finn is drawing a big lunch crowd and has become a favorite watering hole for 20-somethings. Remodeled Grapeseed is one of the best restaurants in Bethesda—and is usually packed. Mia’s Pizzas has become a favorite for families.