By Popular Demand, More Places to Eat Out

By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 12, 2005

At noon on a recent Friday, the lunchtime crowd buzzed through the Boulevard at the Capital Centre in Largo.

Open-air seating at the shopping center's Restaurant Row was packed. Diners strolled into and out of Stonefish Grill and Red Star Tavern, both only months old.

Curious onlookers peered into the window of Gladys and Ron's Chicken & Waffles, an Atlanta-based chain founded by singer Gladys Knight and Ron Winans, scheduled to open this spring. A worker stood on a lift straightening bold red letters on the face of Carolina Kitchen, another restaurant opening soon.

Brown-bagging it is on the way out for lunch-goers in Prince George's, where the lack of varied restaurant offerings for years has driven residents and workers out of the county.

In the past 2 1/2 years, a small revitalization of the county's restaurant sector has pushed the number of eateries in the county up from about 75 in 2002 to well above 100. The epicenter has been Largo, where the new shopping mall and a nearby restaurant site at Landover and Lottsford roads have brought in more than a dozen new eateries.

Melinda Cooper, owner of Infusions Tea Cafe in Largo, also at the Boulevard, said her new cafe is booming. Cooper, a former financial analyst supervisor who lives in Mitchellville, opened her restaurant in late February and has had a steady stream of diners for her teas and lunchtime Panini sandwiches, wraps and salads. She said she opened her cafe for people like herself.

"When I came up with this idea, there was not anything here," Cooper said from her shop last week. "We just did not have anywhere to go. This is why I'm doing it. I feel that this was placed on my heart. . . . I got tired of going to Montgomery County or the District."

Lance London said he decided to reopen his Carolina Kitchen in Largo after the restaurant caught on fire in Silver Spring in late 2003 because he believed Prince George's restaurant and retail sectors would make a comeback.

"Chain restaurants never understood all the disposable income in [Prince George's] County," said London, who lives in Mitchellville's Woodmore subdivision. "Now that restaurants are starting to open up, everyone is starting to realize the obvious."

Largo is the same community that virtually begged restaurateurs to locate there four years ago. A Web site created by a local real estate developer, , polled county residents about which restaurant chains they would most like to see in the community and asked them to write paragraphs explaining to the restaurateurs why they should come to Largo. More than 10,000 people filled out the survey.

The online survey results reflected the almost unified complaints of county residents who said they had grown tired of the same handful of old-standby restaurant choices, stopping by grocery store salad bars for a quick lunch, or driving to Annapolis, Rockville or the District for a fancy dinner.

Now, the restaurants that decided to locate in the area are doing well, said the Web site's creator, Jeffrey D. Ludwig, senior vice president at Michael Cos., a commercial real estate firm in Lanham.

Ludwig recently wooed Ruby Tuesday to a site he brokers in Largo, at Landover and Lottsford roads. Three of the four pads there are now occupied.

He's hoping to sign another chain to the fourth pad soon, and said the push to bring more restaurateurs to Prince George's isn't quite over. His Web site has been recast and is now attempting to bring more eateries to Vista Gardens Marketplace, a development in Lanham at the intersections of Annapolis Road, Martin Luther King Boulevard and Lottsford Vista Road. The top gainer in the poll thus far is P.F. Chang's, with 8,2 votes. Legal Seafood, Copeland's and Romano's Macaroni Grill are not far behind. Thus far, none of the restaurants has agreed to locate at the Lanham development.

"It is still a challenge," Ludwig said. National restaurant chains often shy from areas where there is no shopping, which has been a problem in Prince George's. The county is one of the most under-retailed jurisdictions in the region, according to the Prince George's Economic Development Corp.

Kathryn Lewis and Lee Amber Howell, who live in Prince George's and work at a nonprofit in Hyattsville, said they are happy some progress has been made. They shot over to Largo for lunch recently and stood in the midst of half a dozen lunch choices contemplating which restaurant to choose. Ultimately, comfort food from Red Star Tavern, part of a Chicago-based restaurant chain, won them over.

"I'm glad I don't have to go so far to get good food," said Howell, who eats in Largo at least once a month now.

But along with the new convenience comes a new problem, Lewis said. The Boulevard is so crowded that "the parking here is getting to be an issue."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company