Two years ago, I had a hard time finding new restaurants to review. Lately, I haven’t stopped eating out.
In the last year, more than 25 restaurants have opened in Bethesda and the surrounding towns. Many took over vacated spaces; a few staked out new digs. Most are casual; a couple are upscale. Some are so-so; others are must-go. There hasn’t been a seismic shift, but I’d say dining out here is on the upswing. And other promising places are on the way.
The biggest news has been the immigration of well-known chefs into the area. In Bethesda, noted Washington longtimer Yannick Cam opened Bistro Provence; Robert Wiedmaier, of downtown’s Marcel’s and Brasserie Beck, unveiled Mussel Bar; and Dennis Friedman—the young, up-and-coming former chef of Bezu Restaurant in Potomac—is heading up Newton’s Table on Elm Street. Meanwhile, Francis Layrle, the longtime chef at the French Embassy, has brought his considerable talents to Bezu.
And Daniel Arana, the former executive chef of the District’s upscale Taberna del Alabardero, bought Sol de Espana, turning the modest Rockville Pike restaurant into a delightful gem.
Wiedmaier’s presence alone “gave us a lot of credibility with other downtown chefs,” says Ralph Ours, leasing agent for Federal Realty, the Bethesda Row landlord. Ours says the company has been approached by top toques in the city even as it has been seeking them out.
Wiedmaier echoes that. His success on Woodmont Avenue has “absolutely piqued” the interest of his downtown chef buddies, he says. “They can’t believe the numbers I’m doing,” with as many as 800 people on a Saturday night.
What’s more, the chef-owners of two of Bethesda’s best restaurants have opened offshoots. In January, Damian Salvatore of Persimmon opened Wild Tomato, a casual, family-friendly restaurant in Cabin John. And at press time, Jeff Heineman was getting ready to open Freddy’s Lobster and Clams, a fried fish joint next to his Grapeseed American Bistro & Wine Bar on Cordell Avenue.
In addition, a number of popular D.C. restaurants have opened their first suburban branches here. Matchbox Vintage Pizza Bistro and Againn, both highly regarded in the District, found additional homes on Rockville Pike. Bethesda Row nabbed District-based Taylor Gourmet and Georgetown Cupcake, plus the first Cava Mezze Grill, the fast-food concept from the Greek guys who run Cava Restaurant on Capitol Hill and in Rockville. Pete’s New Haven-Style Apizza, which opened its first restaurant in Columbia Heights, picked upper Wisconsin Avenue for its second location.
A few interesting mom-and-pop operations have cropped up in Bethesda’s Woodmont Triangle, too. Rockville Pike, Potomac’s Park Potomac development and Silver Spring are all dotted with new eateries. Even food-challenged Kensington got a new restaurant (and a bakery, albeit one named Itsy Bitsy).
In the reviews and ratings that follow, I try to compare apples to apples (or pizza to pizza, as the case may be). My basis of comparison is not downtown restaurants, or New York’s East Village, but the competition within Bethesda Magazine’s readership area. Not always, but more often than not, I think people choose from what’s in—or close to—their own neighborhoods. And though I’m primarily judging the food, I’ve also taken into account service, ambiance and how successfully the restaurant satisfies a niche or need.
Guide to the Ratings
Go: Worth a visit. Not always stellar, but I’d go there again on my own dime.
Maybe: Some good dishes, some gaps.
Don’t bother: Let’s just say these places won’t be receiving my patronage in the near future.
Pricing is based on a three-course dinner for two, including tax and tip but excluding alcohol: $ (up to $50); $$ ($51-$100); $$$ ($101-$150), $$$$ ($150+).
Editor’s note: I have not included a special category for service. Unless I mention somewhere in the blurb that it was either egregious or exemplary, assume that it was just fine.