July-August 2013 | Suburban-ology

‘Hip’ Replacement

Can Bethesda and its environs be transformed into a happening kind of place? Well, kind of, maybe

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My best bro and I got so wasted in Bethesda last weekend that we were crawling until we passed out.

Let me translate that into Bethesda-speak: My husband and I worked so hard in our garden that we barely could walk to the medicine cabinet for aspirin. We tried watching a Downton Abbey rerun on Netflix, but fell asleep sitting up in bed at 10 p.m.

Bethesda, like a lot of Montgomery County, isn’t as young and hip as it could be. While suburban empty nesters age in place, young adults who grew up here or came to the region for work often migrate to neighborhoods in the District or Arlington, where affordable apartments and nightlife are more plentiful.

“Bethesda seems to be a nice place to live, but it does shut down pretty early,” says Bret Carlson, 30, an assistant manager at Mussel Bar & Grille, the rare Bethesda restaurant to keep its kitchen open and its cool vibe pulsing past 10 on weeknights. “When I get off work around midnight and walk to my car, it just seems like everything is closed. I guess it’s just the culture for now.”

That may change.

The county has convened a Nighttime Economy Task Force that could recommend revamping liquor laws that now require restaurants with full liquor licenses to sell one dollar of food for every dollar of alcohol and force them to close hours earlier than competitors in the District.

The task force is part of a broader effort to improve the county’s generational mix and economic future by bringing more city-style amenities to suburbia: walkable neighborhoods with lots of options for working, living, socializing and enjoying the arts and entertainment near mass transportation.

Bethesda is one of five “mini-urban hubs” that county officials are focusing on. The others are downtown Silver Spring, Wheaton, White Flint and Germantown. Each has its assets and challenges.

Silver Spring is already a regional destination for young hipsters like Mehdi Raoufi, 26, a musician and sound designer for theater productions. He lives in Alexandria but travels to Silver Spring once a week to meet friends for music at The Fillmore or movies at the American Film Institute’s Silver Theatre.

Wheaton has a cornucopia of interesting, affordable ethnic restaurants for hipsters of all ages. It also has a reputation for some of the worst crime in the county, even though recent stats suggest that may no longer be justified. County officials may need to do things like improve the lighting so people feel safer.

White Flint, the future site of the 24-acre Pike & Rose development, also will be home to a new, intimate performing space affiliated with The Music Center at Strathmore. It will have to book incredible acts to lure people like me, who associate Rockville Pike with ugly sprawl and the worst traffic snarls in suburbia. “We have to tear up every inch of Rockville Pike and rebuild it as a city street,” says at-large Montgomery County Councilman Hans Riemer. “It’s going to take time.”

Bethesda’s biggest barrier to youth, hipness and innovation may be its prices. Rí Rá Irish Pub, the only downtown Bethesda venue offering free live music five nights a week, is leaving this summer because its rent jumped to $60 a square foot—a 40 percent increase, says manager Paul Turner, 29. Rí Rá is moving for cheaper rent in, of all places, Georgetown.

Tommy Joe’s—the  Montgomery Lane hot spot where young people have been thronging the bar, dance floor and outdoor patio for 16 years—will likely close within two years, forced out by costly condo developments going up nearby.

“We’d have to stop making noise, which means I’m out of business,” says owner Alan Pohoryles, 42. “With what’s going on, I felt like I should just start my next venture and ride things out here as long as I can.”

To me, hip at any age means not just being in the know about cultural currents but being open to new experiences and discoveries. The hippest neighborhoods I know are places where a young chef or retailer with little cash but an original vision can take risks and win converts.

“That’s not going to happen in Bethesda,” according to Pohoryles, who serves on the county’s Nighttime Economy Task Force. At least for now. “This is more like a poor man’s Rodeo Drive. The only businesses that can afford to thrive here are corporations that have multiple locations and can afford $60-to-$80-a-square-foot rent.”

When Vino Volo opened late last year on a stretch of Woodmont Avenue considered part of Bethesda Row, I wondered where I’d seen that name before. Then it hit me: Dulles International Airport, Concourse C. Vino Volo—Italian for wine flight—is a chain that existed only in airports until it came to downtown Bethesda. Wines by the glass here are served on paper coasters printed with descriptions of the vino’s attributes along with an advertisement: the price of a bottle if you want to take one home.

It reminds me of one of the Urban Dictionary’s definitions of hip: a word someone uses when they are trying to sell you something.

Pohoryles is betting that Woodmont Triangle, where rents are lower than those near Bethesda Row and the vibe is less cookie-cutter-corporate, is Bethesda’s best hope for creating a cool space that might draw both empty nesters and young adults. “It could be like Bourbon Street in New Orleans a few nights a week,” he says. “I think the residents would raise holy hell, but that’s my vision.”

Actually, I’d be thrilled to have good, free street music so close to home—as long as they unplug the amps by 10 p.m.

For now, I’m celebrating that Bethesda has one new live music venue: Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club. It opened in a pristinely restored 1930s movie theater on Wisconsin Avenue. When I took a 26-year-old relative there, I warned him that the crowd was likely to be older. It was. The club’s cool, Deco décor made us feel as if we were stepping into a time when hip was pronounced “hep.” The band was graying and some of the musicians looked like their day jobs were at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But they were tight, funny and very hip. My twentysomething declared the club “a gift.”

Suddenly, I had the unhippest thought of all: My property value probably just went up.

April Witt is an award-winning journalist who lives in Bethesda. To comment or suggest ideas, email aprilwitt@hotmail.com.