May-June 2015 | Featured Article

The Shifting Bethesda Restaurant Scene

With rents rising and tastes changing, a new wave of restaurant chains is remaking the Bethesda-area dining scene.

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Chef Robert Wiedmaier at Wildwood Kitchen, the Bethesda restaurant he opened in 2012. Photo by Skip Brown.

AT WILDWOOD KITCHEN, Robert Wiedmaier is drawing on a napkin. “All my kitchens are designed this way,” he says, scrawling a square. “My saucier stands there, my poissonier is there, and so on. We can all see each other, taking cues like a great band. I’m the orchestrator, I designed the menu, the melody. These guys have to play the songs for me.”

Wiedmaier owns RW Restaurant Group, a mini-empire of restaurants in Maryland, the District and Virginia. A Kensington resident, he grew up in Germany and has been a fixture in the Washington dining scene for three decades. Before the 1999 opening of his flagship, Marcel’s, in the District’s West End neighborhood—now widely regarded as one of the best restaurants in D.C.—Wiedmaier was executive chef at the Watergate Hotel, where he worked under renowned French chef Jean-Louis Palladin.

“I love to cook,” Wiedmaier says. “I studied books, I knew everything about the great chefs. You have to have total conviction. That’s why I lost my first wife. She said, ‘You’re never home, you love cooking more than me.’

I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ ”

In recent months, Wiedmaier has been planting his flag deeper into the Bethesda area. Adding to the three restaurants he already owns here (Mussel Bar & Grille in Bethesda, Brasserie Beck Kentlands and Wildwood Kitchen), Wiedmaier is opening Urban Heights, which will be helmed by former Ten Penh chef Cliff Wharton, in the former Roof Bethesda on Norfolk Avenue. Spiffy cocktails and an Asian-inspired menu aim to draw customers in a way the short-lived Roof never could. “It’s a great venue, and we’re going to do it right,” says RW Restaurant Group partner Frank Shull. Wiedmaier has also taken over The Tavern at River Falls in Potomac, as well as the former Markham’s Bar and Grill on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, which will be called Villain & Saint and feature live music, American craft beer and “great bar comfort food,” Shull says.

Chef Cliff Wharton at Urban Heights in Bethesda. Photo by Skip Brown.

Wiedmaier is among a wave of Washington area chefs adding energy and creating buzz in Montgomery County. Chef Jeff Tunks, whose company Passion Food Hospitality owns seven Washington-area restaurants, and Mike Isabella, of downtown D.C.’s Graffiato, both plan to open their first Bethesda restaurants this summer. When you add the already-established mini-empires of restaurateurs including Jeff Black, Damian and Stephanie Salvatore, Roberto and Ricardo Pietrobono, and Bryan Voltaggio, you have an expanding group of local chef-entrepreneurs shaping the dining scene in and around Bethesda.

This wave is part of a larger transformation that is affecting what, where and how we eat. Throughout the Bethesda area, two trends have emerged: In addition to the mini-empires by name chefs, we’re seeing an explosion of national chains. At Rockville’s Pike & Rose, for example, more than a dozen restaurants have opened in recent months, none of them locally owned. They include ubiquitous brands such as Starbucks and Chipotle, as well as higher-end boutique chains such as Stella Barra Pizzeria and Summer House Santa Monica, both owned by the Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.

Driving both trends is the challenge of ballooning rents. National chains are backed by deep corporate pockets, while the mini-empires are able to use economies of scale to maximize buying power and minimize risk. Brand-name chefs such as Voltaggio and Isabella can also negotiate more favorable deals because landlords covet them for the cachet.

The trends have notable differences. While national chains build cookie-cutter restaurants where the vibe and menu are the same everywhere, chef-driven chains create different restaurants in each locale, where the decor, food and cocktails are carefully targeted for the community. Take Jeff Black, whose six Washington-area restaurants include the sleek Black’s Bar & Kitchen on Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda, the homey Black Market Bistro in Garrett Park, and the funky Republic in Takoma Park. “I want to serve different food,” Black says. “I want to be in the fabric of the neighborhood."

Whether you believe Bethesda has the chops to be the next Aspen, as Fortune magazine suggested in January, or is a dining desert devoid of distinction, as dining critics Tom Sietsema of The Washington Post and Todd Kliman of Washingtonian magazine both maintain, few would argue that we enjoy a vibrant and dynamic restaurant scene. Wendy Seher, senior vice president of leasing at Federal Realty Investment Trust, which owns Bethesda Row, says her firm is constantly “tweaking and pruning” its mix of shops and restaurants to stay with or ahead of the styles.