When talk turns to night life in Montgomery County, the cities of Bethesda and Silver Spring tend to dominate the conversation.
It's not as if the central and northern parts of the county are bereft of places to get a drink or hear a band -- Gaithersburg's Growlers brew pub and Dogfish Head Alehouse are among the nightspots that have been covered in these pages -- but the concentration of restaurants and bars in the close-in suburbs means they attract newer, splashier gathering places.
Looking for something different, I decided to leave the Beltway behind, making trips up Interstate 270 to Frederick and detouring for freshly brewed beer, competition-quality pool tables, poker games and plenty of live music. Here's what you'll find if you venture up that way.
200 E. Middle Lane, Unit A, Rockville
Diners searching for a bite to eat around the new Rockville Town Center will find many overly familiar names such as Potbelly, Cosi, Austin Grill and La Tasca, so it figures that the best place to grab a drink is also a chain. Thankfully for German-beer lovers, it's a Gordon Biersch brew pub.
Open since May, this is the area's third Gordon Biersch, following locations in Penn Quarter and Tysons Corner Center, and like the others, it makes only traditional lagers, ranging from the light Golden Export to dark Schwarzbier, which has a nice roasted malt flavor. Brewer Jim Sobchak comes from Fordham Brewing in Annapolis, and so far I've enjoyed most of his offerings, including the hoppy Czech Pilsner. However, the crisp, slightly fruity Sommerfest, which my bartender pushed as "great for hot weather," tastes listless and smells slightly funky.
Gordon Biersch offers only its own products on draft, and the bartenders are patient with first-time visitors who ask for Budweiser or Guinness. The best jumping-off point for newbies is a sampler of five house beers for $5.75, but if you're curious about only one or two, the bartenders will pour a shot-glass-size taste for free. Beers cost about $5 each and arrive in fancy German-style glasses measured in half liters, not pints.
The building itself is inviting, with a modern look and a two-sided bar that faces a breezy veranda and a television-filled lounge. (Stools on the outdoor half are filled much more quickly.) A few tables are available on the wide sidewalk, though the seating areas are surrounded by low metal fences that make customers look as if they're dining in cribs.
Happy hour draws workers from the nearby county government buildings as well as groups heading to the Regal Cinemas across the street. From 4 to 6:30 weekdays and from 10 p.m. to last call Sunday through Thursday, take $1 off beers and $2 off wines, and pay $5 for house martinis, mojitos and margaritas. Mini pizzas, wings, egg rolls and other appetizers cost $4.95 during these times; skip the soggy, lifeless garlic fries, even though the staff highly recommends them.
Orange Ball Billiards and Cafe
430 Hungerford Dr., Rockville