If Tom Sietsema lived in Bethesda, he’d “mount a revolt” over the dearth of good restaurants.
“There are lots of places to eat, but not many that raise the bar or even set themselves apart in some fresh way,” the influential Washington Post food critic says. “It’s really frustrating. …I just don’t get it.”
Case in point: It’s a Friday night in March, and Sietsema and I have just finished dinner at Assaggi Mozzarella Bar. “I was hoping it would be better,” he says, having heard from a Bethesda friend that it had improved since he reviewed it in 2009. It hasn’t. It might even be worse, he says.
I have known Sietsema for years (we worked together at the Post), and though I agree with him about our mediocre meal at Assaggi, it seems to me that he has been particularly tough on Bethesda restaurants in general. His fall 2009 dining guide of 50 favorites included only one Bethesda restaurant, Jaleo, an offshoot of the downtown branch. And the fall 2010 issue featured Jaleo again, and only one other—Praline.
He says, however, that he’s no harder on Bethesda eateries than he is on Capitol Hill restaurants. Both neighborhoods are dense with places to eat, but sparse on kitchens that serve quality food, he says.
One of his harshest reviews recently was of Mussel Bar. Though Bethesda Magazine readers voted it the Best New Restaurant this year, and I gave it a favorable review, Sietsema pummeled it in his October critique, giving it only half a star, meaning “poor.” He described the fried oysters as “encased in what tasted like cardboard” and the frozen french fries as not tasting “much like potato.” He said he never left the restaurant without a headache from the noise, “or the feeling that this is a giant ATM with a dishwasher, and I’m getting ripped off.”
“Everybody was shocked,” Mussel Bar chef-owner Robert Wiedmaier says of the review. “I don’t know why [Sietsema] went on this bender to just smash the place,” he adds, noting that other reviews were far more positive. “He obviously hated it. There’s nothing I can do about that. [But] what matters to me is that people love it and the place is full.”
Sietsema is far from alone in his disappointment with Bethesda restaurants. Critics and foodies have long complained that the dining scene here offers more show than substance.
Phyllis Richman, the Post’s longtime restaurant critic who is now retired and living in Takoma Park, says she always thought Bethesda restaurants “were a little thin. Everything was a slightly less good version of what you would find elsewhere.”
Richman notes that there are a lot of attractive, fashionable restaurants. But “what people talk about in food and in everything these days is ‘passion.’ That’s the watchword of the decade,” she says. And “it’s hard to find any restaurant in Bethesda where the chef is cooking with passion. Where is the restaurant where the chef is young and idealistic and wants to make his own mark? Where is the chef who is an immigrant who is proudly presenting the food of his youth?”
Still, Richman believes there are good restaurants in Bethesda—her favorites include Black’s Bar & Kitchen, Jaleo and Raku (Sietsema also likes those three, plus Grapeseed and the much-improved Redwood Restaurant and Bar). But Richman generally prefers Rockville and Wheaton, where she says the ethnic eateries are more authentic.
Washingtonian restaurant critic Todd Kliman isn’t a Bethesda fan, either. In an online chat in March 2010, he was asked: “Why is Bethesda such a dining wasteland?” Kliman’s response: “It’s amazing how underwhelming a dining scene it is—especially when you consider the numbers (more than 200 restaurants) and the perceived affluence of the residents.”
Kliman noted that although five Bethesda restaurants made it onto that magazine’s 2010 list of the 100 Best Restaurants, none was in the top 50. (Five Bethesda restaurants also made the list in 2011, with just one—Jaleo—making it into the top 40.)
More recently, Kliman wrote an online column about his meal at Food, Wine & Co. He concluded: “But like so many restaurants in Bethesda, the lasting impression is of a place that thinks it’s better than it is. And charges accordingly.”
The critics aren’t alone in perceiving a problem. Before opening Bistro Provence here, longtime Washington chef Yannick Cam ate at a number of Bethesda restaurants. “Honestly, they weren’t very good,” he says. And the food at some of the French competition: “almost atrocious.” Cam, who views Bethesda diners as demanding and impatient of the service, wonders why they’re not equally fussy about the food. “If you’re going to be picky, why not be picky all across the board?” he asks.
In fact, Sietsema says most of the unusually large number of complaints he receives from diners in the wealthier Maryland suburbs are about service, rather than food. He blames the food quality in part on a captive audience that keeps restaurants from trying harder. “You’ve got a huge, affluent, hungry audience of people who don’t want or don’t need to drive into the District,” he says. “If you can roll out of your condo or walk a few blocks, why would you not do that? It’s almost as if people have lower expectations.”
Some restaurateurs say it’s not that suburbanites have lower expectations; they just have different ones.
The mentality of diners “is broader when they go downtown,” says Jared Rager, who owns Bethesda’s Redwood Restaurant and Bar, as well as Blue Ridge and Sonoma in the District. Redwood used to have rabbit and squab on the menu, but they didn’t go over well. “It’s not that the same people don’t go downtown and get excited to eat rabbit and squab,” Rager says. “But when they’re eating in their own neighborhood, they want more of a convenience. I don’t think they’re looking for adventure. I think they’re looking for comfort.”
Mark Weiss, CEO of the Whisk Group, which owns Againn in the District and the newer Againn Tavern in Rockville, agrees that suburban diners have different wants. He doesn’t think Rockville diners are any less discriminating about food than their counterparts downtown. But they are more likely to be families and friends, rather than business associates or young urbanites. So menu variety becomes more important than a hot new dish from a hot new chef. “They want to go somewhere where everyone in the family is satisfied,” he says.
Nadia Abourizk-Asaad of Chevy Chase, who owns Bistro LaZeez in Bethesda with her husband, Reda, agrees that the city “caters to a different crowd.” By contrast, “we want to make good food affordable to the people in our neighborhood.”
Francis Namin, owner of Bethesda’s Food, Wine & Co., sees it more as a problem of urban snobbery. City-based food critics and even his friends who live in the District “don’t like the idea of suburban areas. If you come to a restaurant with a negative attitude, you’re not going to see anything nice,” he says.
Sietsema’s response? “I couldn’t disagree with Namin more,” he says. “Speaking for myself (a city dweller), I’ve never favored D.C. over the suburbs. When I started as the Post’s food critic in 2000, one of my goals was to write about suburban restaurants at least twice a month in the magazine, and I’ve pretty much followed through on that. There’s some really interesting stuff to eat outside the District—just not so much in Bethesda, I’m sorry to say.”
Sietsema does enjoy several Montgomery County restaurants—Bezu, Jackie’s, La Limena, Michael’s Noodles, Samantha’s and Spice Xing—in addition to the aforementioned few in Bethesda. However, he thinks Northern Virginia has superior restaurants in general, partly because of its ethnic pockets (Korean and Vietnamese in Annandale and Falls Church, among others). “Across the board, at all price points, NoVa pretty much surpasses Bethesda when it comes to interesting, innovative and delicious restaurants,” he says.
At least part of the problem could be that some restaurateurs shy away from this area.
“I know some chefs who will not come to Montgomery County,” says Jeff Black of the Black Restaurant Group, which owns Black Salt in the District and three restaurants in the county. “Montgomery County can be a difficult place to do business,” he says. He has found some of the building code and permit rules arbitrary—as well as costly. For example, Black says he was forced to buy an expensive—and ultimately unreliable—new grease trap for Black’s Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda. In the District, “they’re not as intrusive.”
Other restaurateurs cite the county’s control over beer, wine and liquor as an obstacle.
“What should be our biggest and most secure profit center [alcohol sales] ends up being much less significant,” Redwood’s Rager says. Because of that, restaurateurs may make up the difference by buying less expensive ingredients or packaged products. “If you can’t be as competitive in Montgomery County, you either don’t open a restaurant, or you open a restaurant that plays it safe and has better margins,” he says.
Then there’s the matter of which restaurants go where. At Bethesda Row, Federal Realty controls which restaurants move in with an eye focused more on foot traffic than food quality. “We do look for good food restaurants,” says Ralph Ours, Federal’s leasing agent for Bethesda Row. “But in Bethesda, we want something that can help benefit traffic.”
The other issue, of course, is rent. Bethesda Row, in particular, is expensive, making large or desirable spaces more affordable to chain restaurants than independent operators. Such was the case with the old Chicken Out space on Bethesda Avenue, which recently went to Nando’s Peri-Peri, an international chicken chain with 900 restaurants in 30 countries.
So what do the diners themselves think? Most of the people I talk to are pretty happy with the options here. They pick and choose, and settle on a few favorites. The biggest complaint I hear (and share) is about the parking.
As for me, I tend to be defensive of Bethesda restaurants (since I live here). But as a restaurant reviewer sampling a wide array of places and dishes, I agree there’s room for improvement.
Still, Bethesda as a dining destination for urbanites or critics is different from Bethesda as a place to live, work and eat. We may not have a lot of edgy, fine dining establishments or charming ethnic holes-in-the-wall. And like other suburbs, we have a lot of mediocre chains. But if you’re looking for a comfortable place for a business or social lunch, a convenient meal after a long day of work, a neighborhood hangout where everybody knows everybody, a family-friendly night out, or some reliable carryout when you don’t feel like cooking, Bethesda has a lot to offer. And after all, isn’t that how most people live?
Carole Sugarman is the magazine’s food editor and restaurant critic.