July-August 2009

Best Place to Live

Is the Bethesda area the best place in the country to live?

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In addition to choosing from dozens of cuisines, diners will find plenty of options for alfresco dining. Many restaurants along Bethesda Row and in the Woodmont Triangle offer outdoor seating when the weather is warm. Bethesda resident Jessica Lefkow says local restaurants rank fairly high among the wide variety of eating establishments that she and her family have patronized while living in such far-flung places as India, Paris and Hong Kong.

“Bethesda weighs in amongst the extremely pleasant,” she says. “People are educated about food. They want good food and they’re willing to pay for it.”

And the opportunity to grab a sidewalk table at Cafe Deluxe or Raku just adds to the pleasure, she says. “I’m definitely a sidewalk person. I love the hustle and bustle.”

In Silver Spring, there are more than 150 places to dine, ranging from an authentic Irish brewpub, to a Jamaican bakery, to Jackie’s Restaurant, a trendy hot spot housed in a revamped industrial building. Diners will find more than 200 eating establishments throughout Rockville, whether they visit the Town Square or stop for a bite along Rockville Pike after a day of shopping.

Phyllis Richman, former longtime restaurant critic for The Washington Post, says she has noticed a change for the better in the Bethesda restaurant scene over the past decade.

“The restaurants used to be less sophisticated. It used to be more of what we disparagingly called suburban restaurants,” Richman says. “Now there are more urban restaurants,” such as Raku (sushi) and Jaleo (tapas) on Bethesda Row. “D.C. and Arlington [Va.] have the longest experience of good restaurants, and Bethesda is finally catching up,” she adds.

The Bethesda area is notable for the number of independent restaurants, says Paul Hartgen, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Maryland. “There are lots of good independents there who are really focused onwho they are instead of just the basics,” he says. “We like to see the independents thrive, because it creates more diversity in the area. It’s fun for consumers to have more choices.”

The large number of restaurants, combined with ample disposable income in the area, allows the establishments—especially the small, authentically ethnic businesses—to thrive, says chef Brian Patterson, an instructor at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg.

“There are honest brokers of fine food who are just here in the business of wanting to make really good food,” he says. “The trendiness and affluence creates an environment for true artists to do their work.”

Top of the class

In their move to the area from Europe 10 years ago with two small children, Laurie Levy-Page says she and her husband chose Bethesda for one reason.

“It was all about schools, schools, schools,” says Levy-Page, whose kids are now 12 and 15 years old and attend Thomas W. Pyle Middle School and Walt Whitman High School. “We have not been disappointed.”

The Bethesda area’s top-quality public and private schools continue to attract new residents, despite high real estate prices. And the quality of education remains consistent because well-educated parents demand it, says Dr. Judith Greenberg, director of School Finders, an educational consulting firm in Rockville.

“Some schools go up and down. These schools remain the same,” Greenberg says of the Montgomery County schools. “The public schools have to stay up to the standards of the people living there. They expect their children are going to get a decent education.”

Those high expectations lead to curriculums with rigorous Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate Program courses that other school districts may not offer. Enrolling in such courses can better prepare county students for college, according to Kate Timlin, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown University.

“Being in Montgomery County certainly puts students in a good place, because students have great offerings” that allow them to challenge themselves, Timlin says. She notes that taking such courses can prove to schools like Georgetown that students are able to handle the more rigorous college work that’s required by top institutions.

Residents are no longer surprised when several county high schools rank among the country’s best in polls by national publications. In 2008, U.S. News & World Report’s list of the top 100 U.S. high schools included Walt Whitman in Bethesda at No. 44, Thomas S. Wootton in Rockville at No. 54, and Winston Churchill in Potomac at No. 57.

Newsweek included four Montgomery County high schools among the top 100 in its 2009 Challenge Index, which ranks high schools nationally according to the percentage of students who take AP or IB exams. Richard Montgomery in Rockville came in at No. 38; Bethesda-Chevy Chase at No. 55; Wootton at No. 58; and Winston Churchill at No. 94.Walt Whitman was No. 104; and Walter Johnson in Bethesda was No. 109. Moreover, an Education Week study found that 81 percent of Montgomery County Public School seniors graduate, tying for first place among the nation’s 50 largest school districts with Cypress-Fairbanks school district in Houston, Texas. MCPS is the 16th largest system in the country; Cypress-Fairbanks is the 35th largest.

Jeff Schiffman, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Tulane University, says that the New Orleans-based school is always interested in students who graduate from the county’s top high schools. Twelve Whitman and 12 B-CC graduates were freshmen at Tulane this year. “You don’t need a private school name to be highly regarded on the college side,” Schiffman says.

Parents attribute the success of local public schools to the commitment of teachers and administrators, and to strong parental involvement.