Staying Alive

Staying Alive

How six Bethesda-area restaurants have stood the test of time

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Persimmon bartender Zaki Azzeddine. Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny.

 

Over the past two decades, the Bethesda area has undergone a radical transformation of its restaurant scene. Sit-down restaurants have come and gone. Fast-casual eateries such as CAVA, Sweetgreen and Fish Taco popped up all over, a result of changing tastes, limited time and a cup of frugality. In Bethesda, rising rents shortened the life of new ventures and drove out longtime establishments that could not afford to stay.

At least a dozen Bethesda restaurants have shuttered in the past two years. In Woodmont Triangle, the upscale diner Community closed before its first birthday; the burger joint that replaced it lasted two months. Oakville Grille & Wine Bar and Wildwood Italian Cuisine, sister restaurants in the Wildwood Shopping Center, closed in mid-February. The long-empty space on Elm Street that once housed Rí Rá Irish Pub and later Noodles & Co. is slated to be filled by Lotus Grill and Bar, an Indian/Mexican eatery, and Italian fast-casual Prima will be replacing Taylor Gourmet. To borrow an old joke about the weather: If you don’t like the restaurant choices, wait a week.

Some independent establishments in the Bethesda area have withstood the taste of time, continuing to fill tables and prosper. They may never earn Michelin stars, but they have earned the loyalty of even the most fickle foodies. We wondered what their secrets are, and how they’ve managed to weather food trends, economic downturns and other vicissitudes of restaurant life.

Here, we highlight six of the survivors. The list is much longer, of course, but this group shares many essential qualities that contribute to success. All rely on loyalty, repeat customers and successive generations; all are in the business because they love it—it isn’t a hobby.

It’s unlikely that the current foodscape will stay intact for very long, especially with ever-increasing rents.But four of these six restaurants don’t have to worry about rent—they own their buildings. “The failure of 90 percent of the restaurants is due to renewing the lease, or a lease that is too expensive compared with your receipts,” says Alain Roussel, the owner of La Ferme in Chevy Chase. “Lots of people have big expectations, and if the numbers don’t click and you’re working only for the landlord, that’s a bad deal.”

The logo at La Ferme is a rooster, a national symbol of France. Chosen, Roussel says, because the rooster “is proud, but not arrogant.” This attitude is shared by the other long-standing restaurants: Never take your customers for granted or allow yourself to believe that you’re too good for them. “Don’t spit in the soup,” Roussel says with a laugh, using a French expression meaning don’t be disdainful of what you have.


 

The Bethesda Crab House, which opened in 1961, is a tourist destination in the summer. Yen Lee, now the general manager, started as a busboy 25 years ago. Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny.

 

Bethesda Crab House

Yen Lee first encountered his future boss, Donny Vechery, in a high school fistfight—and they don’t remember what they were fighting about. Lee doesn’t recommend that approach, but after a 25-year career at the Bethesda Crab House—rising from busboy to general manager—he concedes that, yeah, it worked for him.

The crustacean corner at the west end of Bethesda Avenue was opened in 1961 by Henry Vechery, Donny’s dad, and immediately benefited from being the first licensed alcohol retailer in Montgomery County. Takeout beer accounted for a high percentage of revenue until the mid-1980s, Lee says. That was about the time that going out to eat crabs became widely popular, instead of just a shore thing. The street was unpaved and had an industrial feel. “It was a bit like the Wild West,” Lee says. “Henry tossing drunks out was a daily routine.”

Donny Vechery, who had been general manager of the restaurant, took over as owner about five years ago. (He also owns The Surfing Crab in Lewes, Delaware, and is getting ready to open Steamin’ Blues in Rehoboth.) Lee and Donny became acquainted during a brawl at Georgetown Prep “because we were drunk and stupid,” Lee says, laughing. Fisticuffs led to friendship, and Donny hired Lee as a busboy in 1993.

Lee says business has been steady during his time, and the restaurant is busiest from April through September. In the summer, the Bethesda Crab House is a tourist destination and draws business folks with expense accounts who are staying in nearby hotels. A typical check for a party of four is more than $200. Over the last three years, the restaurant has been remodeled because, as Lee puts it, “it was looking like a real s**t hole.” Dinner is far busier than lunch. “Nobody wants to go back to work smelling like seafood and beer,” Lee says. Beer is still the standard beverage, but more diners are choosing wine. “I don’t agree with people eating crabs and drinking wine,” Lee says, “but they do it.”

Asian patrons make up an increasing percentage of the restaurant’s customer base, so Lee is now advertising in local Chinese-language newspapers. The crab house provides the “shore experience” without having to cross the Bay Bridge, he says, and crabs are an affordable luxury. Because the restaurant is known to vendors as a prompt payer, Lee can count on a consistent supply and high quality. “When we need crabs for big days like Father’s Day, we get them,” he says. Many of the restaurant’s local competitors have folded. The Vecherys own the structure, but they pay rent to other family members who own the land. Lee says his biggest challenge these days is attracting younger diners who are willing to work for their food with a wooden mallet.

Mega-restaurateur José Andrés is a big fan of the Bethesda Crab House and holds an annual holiday party there for his chefs. Washingtonian Red Auerbach, the legendary former coach of the Boston Celtics, used to come in all the time. Another regular was Norman Rales, patriarch of the family that owns Danaher Corp. (Rales’ son Mitchell and Mitchell’s wife, Emily, are the founders of the Glenstone Museum in Potomac.)When Lee had surgery a decade ago, Norman Rales came to visit him in the hospital bearing a plush new bathrobe. Rales had his quirks, though. No matter how many guests he brought to the restaurant, his tip was always the same: a silver dollar and a $5 bill, which the staff accepted as a joke. “Then one day in 2012 he came in and left a silver dollar and a $100 bill,” Lee recalls. “He died two days later.”

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