Bethesda's Foodie Paradise
One tiny block of downtown Bethesda has become a go-to destination for food lovers
One of the first things Jordan Neyland did when he moved to Bethesda in January was Google “Bethesda butcher shops.” The top option the search engine offered him then was Safeway.
Neyland, a 34-year-old college professor and an avid cook, was disappointed. He and his wife, Tara, had just returned to the States with their infant son after living in Melbourne, Australia. Their Melbourne neighborhood had a small, high-quality independent butcher shop on almost every corner.
Exploring downtown Bethesda after they arrived, the couple discovered Butchers Alley, which had just opened at 4961 Bethesda Ave. Now they are regulars at the shop, which specializes in hormone-free, locally-sourced meats. “I like that they know where all their meat comes from,” Tara, 36, says. “Having a baby has made us much more responsible about what we eat and what we bring into our home.”
One of the drabbest, most unassuming blocks in the glossy, high-rent Bethesda Row end of downtown has quietly become a little nirvana for foodies. I can walk to Pescadeli at 4960 Bethesda Ave. to buy a whole fresh fish to grill for dinner, cross the street to Butchers Alley to get grass-fed beef for the next night, select a hot-from-the-oven baguette from Fresh Baguette, and then pick up wine at Cork 57—all without leaving the block. If someone opened a good organic produce stand here I might only have to brave a big chain grocery store about as infrequently as I visit my accountant or dentist—a few times a year.
Just as important to me as the high quality of the food available on this little stretch of Bethesda Avenue is the experience; it’s high-touch, not high-tech. Customers of varying ages and backgrounds actually talk to each other and to the experts behind the counter about the ingredients they are buying and what they plan to make with them that night. The changes on this block mean that, finally, after trying every modern way to buy groceries—including ordering online for pickup or home delivery—I’ve found something that I love. It’s small, authentic and very old-fashioned.
To Heather Arnold, the managing principal of the Bethesda-based design and strategy firm Streetsense, the flourishing of food-shopping options at the farthermost reaches of Bethesda Avenue means something else. “Bethesda is becoming a lot more urban…and we are living a more urban lifestyle,” she says. “That’s very much an urban sensibility to buy food for one night, mostly because in an urban setting you might not have a car, and so you couldn’t fill up a big cart.”
The retail market analyst and resident Bethesda guru gets excited when I tell her that I am meeting and exchanging recipes with shoppers of all ages—which, in my experience, is not the norm in Bethesda. Places where different kinds of people mingle are “where community flourishes,” Arnold says. She speaks rapturously about a University of Chicago study that looks at the resilience of different communities after natural disasters. Communities with commercial centers where people of different ages and backgrounds meet and interact rebound faster after disasters than those without them, she says. “They foster a ‘we’ mentality, not a ‘me’ mentality.”
Arnold is not surprised that millennials are drawn to a small and friendly butcher shop that features hormone-free, locally-sourced products. “They are seeking experiences and they are willing to shop, more than any other consumer group in the past 50 years, based on principles,” she says.
One little corner of the 4900 block of Bethesda Avenue had been important to area cooks in the know long before many millennials were born. More than 30 years ago, two brothers from Spain opened A&H Gourmet and Seafood Market in the spot where Pescadeli now stands. They sold fish wholesale and did a no-frills retail trade. Local cooks, particularly those who were born in Europe or had lived there for years, flocked to A&H for high-quality fish they could find nowhere else in Montgomery County. The brothers trekked to New York City once a week to bring a truckload of fish varieties best known in Spain and Portugal to their Bethesda store. Thursday mornings, when that particular shipment arrived, were especially lively at A&H.
It’s a tradition that chef Santiago Zabaleta, now 38, continued after he bought A&H in 2007. Zabaleta was born in Spain. His passion for good food was nourished in his grandfather’s bakery. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York and came to the Washington, D.C., area to work in restaurants. He lives in Bethesda. When he bought A&H, he expanded its wholesale business and now sells regularly to more than 80 area restaurants. In 2012, he moved his wholesale headquarters to a building in Kensington that’s better equipped to unload and process huge quantities of whole fresh fish daily.
Then he began upgrading the retail experience on Bethesda Avenue, remodeling the shop and eventually renaming it Pescadeli. Today, Pescadeli is a delicious amalgam. Along with fresh fish, it sells select grocery items from Spain and Portugal, including canned anchovies, sea salt, specialty cheeses and whole Iberian hams. Deli cases are filled with prepared Spanish foods, including the classic egg and potato tortilla. There is a tiny, three-stool lunch counter where customers can eat or just sit and wait for the next pan of paella to come out of the oven. “If you call ahead and tell us when you want to pick it up, we can send you home with a whole pan of paella right out of the oven,” says Christopher Hadley, 34, Pescadeli manager. They trust their customers to bring back their paella pan within a few days.
Zabaleta’s network of food-loving customers grew when he and his team opened Butchers Alley across the street. “We’re getting a mix,” head butcher Joe Radford, 27, says of the clientele. “We still have such a strong customer base from across the street. A lot more of our new regulars are millennials: newly married or maybe they have a new baby or a toddler and they live in Bethesda or around Bethesda. Everybody mingles.”
On a recent Thursday morning, I crossed paths with the Neylands at the butcher shop. They told me about their favorite coffee place in Bethesda, Bold Bite on Fairmont Avenue, and I vowed to check it out. Then, at Pescadeli, I met Maria Carlota, of Rockville, who told me the best way to grill Spanish mackerel was over wood, not coal or gas. She pointed out the brand of anchovies she likes to use on top of homemade pizza.
Carlota has been coming to this block most Thursday mornings for the last 37 years for fresh fish that she can only buy here. Since the truck bringing the fish she wanted from New York City hadn’t yet arrived, she wandered over to Butchers Alley and bought lamb for stew. Then she crossed back to Pescadeli. “Almost two hours I have been waiting,” she says, not complaining. “The fish is that good. I can’t come to Bethesda and not buy fish—no way.” When the truck from New York arrived, she clapped with delight and cheerfully began directing the fishmonger on which fish she wanted and how she wanted it cut.
“Our customers, we know them on a first-name basis and they know us,” Zabaleta says. “We know if they were on vacation last week and where they were. We know their kids, their husband or wife. We know their preferences, what they like to cook or eat, what they don’t. It’s fun building that relationship.”
April Witt (email@example.com) is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.