The opening of the first four of what will be more than a dozen new eateries in downtown Silver Spring has given this close-in suburb its own version of the restaurant plaza. While redevelopment has expanded the dining choices, it hasn't raised the culinary horizons.

Unlike downtown Bethesda, which long has featured a cluster of family-owned upscale restaurants, and in recent years has been augmented by some of the more upscale national chains, Silver Spring's core of locally owned restaurants has been joined by some of the nation's largest midrange chains.

The now-open Red Lobster, Panera Bakery, Potbelly Sandwich Works and Austin Grill will be joined Feb.16 by a Romano's Macaroni Grill, and in coming months by several other national major chains, including Starbucks, Red Rock Canyon Grill, the McDonald's-owned Chipotle Mexican Grill and Ben & Jerry's. California-based Baja Fresh Mexican Grill has been open for more than two years.

Also in the offing are branches of Arlington-based Lebanese Taverna, Quebec-based Eggspectation and Maryland-based Phillips Seafood. A Caribbean-themed restaurant and club is slated to open in the spring. Most of the new dining spots are arrayed along Georgia Avenue and the soon-to-be-reopened Ellsworth Drive, in the redeveloping four-block shopping, dining and entertainment area named Downtown Silver Spring. Others will be in the renovated City Place mall, which is adjacent.

Red Lobster, based in Orlando and owned by the same company that owns the Olive Garden chain, has more than 670 restaurants. The Silver Spring location, the 15th in the Washington area, fronts on Georgia Avenue as part of the historic former Silver Spring Shopping Center, now refurbished as part of the Downtown Silver Spring complex. The seafood restaurant offers an extensive menu that is heavy on shrimp offerings, many of them fried. There are also numerous fish selections, including salmon, mahi-mahi, flounder and halibut.

On a recent visit, the shrimp in the signature Crown of Shrimp appetizer -- a dozen shrimp threaded on skewers and fried tempura-style -- were greasy and needed the trendy wasabi horseradish dipping sauce to provide any flavor. The grilled mahi-mahi was cooked too dry on the exterior, though the center was moist and flavorful, and there was little evidence of the citrus-infused butter that was to accent it. The accompanying grilled vegetables were limp and watery.

Panera Bread is at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road. This bakery-cafe is kind of the big brother of the Au Bon Pain chain of sandwich shops, which was the first chain developed by Panera's owners, who subsequently sold it. The Silver Spring location is the 20th branch in the Washington area of the Missouri-based chain.

Part of the store is a bakery with a wide selection of breads, bagels and pastries for sale to take home. The remainder is a cafe, which serves a wide selection of sandwiches, salads and soups. I think the sandwiches sound better than they taste. My Tuscan chicken selection, served on the store's rosemary and onion focaccia, had sweet-tasting chicken, a pleasant balsamic vinaigrette but the bread was very bland and much too smooth textured to be a true focaccia. And the chicken Caesar salad won't win any fans among anchovy fans.

Potbelly Sandwich Works, the eleventh Washington area location for this Chicago-based chain, fronts Ellsworth Drive. Offering a more limited menu of sandwiches, all prepared hot and served on Italian rolls, Potbelly has a studied down-home feel, sometimes punctuated with live music. The sandwiches are good, if not inspired. But you can get a root beer float, and the dream bar, which includes chocolate chips, oatmeal and caramel, tastes like something you wish your mother could have made.

Its Ellsworth Drive restaurant is Washington-based Austin Grill's seventh area branch. Austin Grill features Tex-Mex cooking, including burritos, enchiladas, fajitas and all the trimmings. It has a honky-tonk ambience, a cheerful staff, but cooking that doesn't yet measure up to its premiere Wisconsin Avenue location.

The gem of downtown Silver Spring's new offerings is Adega Wine Cellars & Cafe, located around the corner from Baja Fresh. Open since August, Adega (which means wine cellar in Portuguese) is owned by former wine distributor Walter Rhee and chef Bruno Silva, who was formerly with Citronelle and the Great American Restaurants group, among other places.

The handsomely appointed wine store offers a broad selection of wines, chocolates and wine supplies including glasses, and the adjoining cafe has the most interesting food in the new complex. There is a small menu of freshly prepared sandwiches, salads and soups. A broad selection of wines is also available by the glass.

On a recent visit, my black-sesame encrusted tuna salad included thick fingers of gently seared tuna atop a mixture of spring greens. The tuna tasted bright and clean, like good quality sushi or sashimi.

It may not have the most prominent location, but Adega is worth seeking out.

Red Lobster, 8533 Georgia Ave. 301-588-3299. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Panera Bread, 8541 Georgia Ave. 301-495-0860. 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.

Potbelly Sandwich Works. 917 Ellsworth Dr. 301-562-9696. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Austin Grill, 919 Ellsworth Dr. 240-247-8969. 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Adega Wine Cellars & Cafe, 8519 Fenton St. 301-608-2200. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday,11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. Opening Feb. 16: Romano's Macaroni Grill. 931 Ellsworth Dr. 301-562-2806. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

If you have a food-related event or favorite restaurant that you think deserves attention, please contact Nancy Lewis at

Adega Wine Cellars & and Cafe, which opened in August, is a standout among the new restaurants in downtown Silver Spring. During happy hour, bruschetta, above, is served. Above right, Adega's ahi tuna salad. Co-owner Walter Rhee, below, looks over the wine stock.