Something's in the air, and it makes Debbie Doherty hungry -- a perfume of roasted meat and fragrant spices on the cool night breeze. Maybe it's the pollo en cremi at Costa del Sol. Or the scallion-filled dumplings at Kabul West. Or the filet mignon at Le Marmiton.
A walk through downtown Bethesda is a follow-your-nose excursion, a dine-around-the-world tour. There are now about 130 restaurants in Bethesda, more than in the city of Denver, community officials say. Seventeen new restaurants have opened since the last dining guide was published in March, and the lunch trade alone brings in $20 million to $30 million a year. In only five or six years, Bethesda has joined the ranks of other restaurant meccas in the region: Old Town in Alexandria, Adams-Morgan and Georgetown.
After years of complaints about redevelopment, Bethesda has emerged, not just as a regional restaurant center, but as an area that some say qualifies as Montgomery County's downtown.
"Years ago, if you wanted a good meal, you had to go into the District," said Ben King, former president of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce. "There was not a lot of choice except for your Little Tavern hamburgers."
Now there are plenty of choices -- Japanese, Lebanese, Vietnamese, French, Italian, Romanian, Mexican and Persian -- many on the same block or just around the corner.
The restaurants have provided a handy identity to a suburb that had been criticized for destroying its small-town image through development. Hundreds of millions of dollars in new construction have given Bethesda a modern skyline with lighted names such as Oracle, Hyatt and Wang atop tall buildings. Multiple road projects have kept traffic stalled and snarled for months. Residents complained that old Bethesda, with its streets of trophy shops and lampshade stores, was lost forever.
On weekend nights nowadays, the activity is plain to see. Couples inspect the menus posted outside La Panetteria or Matuba. Families settle in for egg rolls and lemon chicken at China Village and Foong Lin. County parking garages, with 7,000 free spaces, quickly fill up as the night deepens. Six hundred people dance the rhumba under the stars at the Metro station plaza. Impossibly long waits form at the trendier spots.
"An hour and 20 minutes! They said it would be an hour and 20 minutes!" exclaimed Debbie Doherty of Silver Spring, reporting back to her party of four as they waited, double-parked, outside Rio Grande Cafe, a clamorous, neon-lit restaurant that was popularized by President Bush's visit. The restaurant doesn't take reservations.
Would they wait that long? "Not when we're this hungry," Doherty said. But there was no shortage of alternatives. "We'll just go to the Greek place," she said.
Alan Rosenthal, 65, danced the tango, smoothly leading his wife, Yukiko, across the brick plaza at the Bethesda Metro station, while cars streamed by on Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road. The plaza was full of dancing couples, and had been busy every Friday night from May through September, the "big band" season in Bethesda.
"Bethesda, you know, is a main watering hole, a stopping place. The Metro is right here. The problem is, you get off work, you've got to make a big decision about what to do next," said Rosenthal, a real estate lawyer. "To me, it's delightful dancing outside. It's, quote, more romantic."
In certain ways, Bethesda is the epitome of suburban nightlife. Missing is the chaos and the noise of Georgetown, but also the window-shopping, the people-watching and the historic charm. It is not funky or colorful like Adams-Morgan, but it is considered less hectic, more accessible and safer.
"With the problems going on in the District, the murder rate and everything, it deters a lot of people from going in," King said. "I know I think twice about it at night."
Despite the big new buildings on Wisconsin Avenue, the opening of the Metro six years ago and the proliferation of public art works ("Rainbow Forest" guards the Metro entrance with aluminum discs and cascading waters), Bethesda retains some of its past. Many of the restaurants, clustered in an area northwest of the Metro station known as the Woodmont triangle, are housed in low-slung older buildings that used to contain furniture stores and other enterprises, and more than a few of the longtime jewelry shops, carpet dealers and trophy stores are still in business.
"Bethesda is still pedestrian-friendly," said Carol Trawick, chairman of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase citizens advisory board.
How it became the dining district it is today has much to do with demographics, area officials say. Greater Bethesda, which includes the National Institutes of Health, Geico insurance and the Bethesda Naval Hospital, is the largest employment center in the county and the second largest in Maryland, with 135,000 jobs, according to the Chamber of Commerce.
That helps to ensure both a good lunch and dinner crowd, a key to restaurant success, and one successful eatery in a certain location often begets another. Bethesda was always home to a few well-known restaurants, notably O'Donnell's, a seafood restaurant that opened in 1956 and still draws large crowds.
"Bethesda is a professional center," said Thomas C. Miller, president of the Chamber of Commerce, "and you have a lot of two-income families whose lifestyles have changed completely. People are more inclined to go out -- they simply don't have time to fix dinner any more -- and let's face it, most professionals don't brown-bag it any more at lunchtime either."
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that only Bethesda residents frequent Bethesda restaurants. On a recent Friday night, Cindy Jackson of Fairfax celebrated her 24th birthday at Rio Grande Cafe with her friends Lara Ragunas and Karen Whalen, who also live in Northern Virginia. "Parking," said Ragunas, explaining why they chose Bethesda for the celebration.
In a few months, a movie theater with 11 screens is scheduled to open in Bethesda, adding another element of nightlife to the community. But Bethesda doesn't have everything, even its most ardent supporters are quick to point out.
"A few things are missing," Miller said. "We don't have really good shopping in Bethesda. Obviously, we're not going to have any shopping malls, but it would be nice to be able to buy a necktie."
If there is a culinary symbol of "old Bethesda," it is surely the Tastee Diner, said John Dolan, 30, who said he misses the Bethesda of his childhood. In business for 65 years, the 24-hour diner features maroon cushioned booths, jukeboxes at each table and waitresses who address the customers as "dear." A meal of meatloaf and two vegetables costs $4.95.
Dolan, a photographer who has lived in New York for several years, said he visits his parents in Bethesda every six months, and is always surprised by the changes that take place between visits: the public art, the new buildings and the restaurants.
"It's like one of those speeded-up films you see, like the flower opening up and changing," he said. "My folks live here and they don't see it like I do. We come back and they tell us how to get somewhere and all they can say is, 'Turn where such-and-such used to be.'
"I'm not so big on it," he said, "but Dad says, 'You're just glamorizing the past.' "