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5 reasons to go out to Tysons (and only one of them is the mall)

People watch an NFL game at the Starr Hill Biergarten at the Perch in Tysons in early October. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/for The Washington Post)

For generations of Washington area residents “Tysons” meant one thing: the biggest mall in the region. Tysons Corner Center was a destination for back-to-school shopping and holiday gift hunting, but more than that, it was a place to hang out. Teenagers would drive halfway around the Beltway, passing malls in Bethesda, Springfield and elsewhere, to wander endlessly from shoe store to record store to arcade to food court before beginning the circuit again.

Even as tech companies snapped up Tysons office space, and giants such as Capital One, MicroStrategy and Booz Allen Hamilton moved their corporate headquarters into the neighborhood. “Tysons,” for most folks, remained synonymous with shopping. Even unofficially dropping “Corner” from the area’s name in 2012 didn’t make a lot of difference.

But now a new generation of developers and town-center planners wants us to think differently. Forget parking lots, traffic jams, even the malls. When you hear “Tysons,” they want the name to conjure memories of sunny rooftop beer gardens, DJs spinning at artsy pop-up bars, and concerts and musicals performed at a 1,600-seat theater, all of which are easily accessible by Metro, or just minutes from the Beltway.

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Ian Callender, one of the social architects behind the popular Sandlot pop-up event spaces in Georgetown and Southeast Washington, heard some pushback from friends and regulars when the Sandlot opened a branch at the Boro, a residential and commercial development near the Greensboro Metro Station. It had the same vibe as the previous locations, with a container bar and events that combine urban music and art, but “They feel hesitant, like it’s just hella far,” Callender says, even after he explains it’s a straight shot out I-395 to I-66 from his home in Southwest. But Callender considers the first summer a success, and is already planning for next year.

Back toward the Beltway, where a 470-foot tower marks the headquarters of Capital One, the last few months have seen the arrivals of some facilities on the banking giant’s campus that are distinctly less buttoned-down: the Capital One Hall performing arts center; the Watermark Hotel and its Wren restaurant; Perch, a 2½ acre park located 11 floors above street level; and the Starr Hill Biergarten, a large rooftop area stocked with beers from the central Virginia brewery.

When Starr Hill had its soft opening in late August, many of the visitors were Starr Hill fans — “those die-hards that either went to U-Va. or are from Charlottesville or Roanoke or Richmond that were out. There was clearly a buzz,” says general manager Brian Griffin. But after the Perch’s grand opening in mid-September, Griffin says, there’s been “more organic growth,” with local families discovering the grassy park on weekends, and concertgoers stopping by for drinks before a show at the hall.

This kind of place-making from scratch has become common in the Washington area — think North Bethesda’s Pike and Rose, Fairfax’s Mosaic District, the Yards along the Anacostia — but it’s interesting to see it happening in Tysons, once defined as an “Edge City” because, while it was technically located in Washington’s suburbs, large crowds commuted into Tysons in the morning, and left again at night. Now, there might just be more reasons to stay.

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None of this, by the way, is to suggest that Tysons has become a model of pedestrian-friendly urbanism. Take the last time I was picking up a jacket from a store at Tysons Corner Center. Naturally, I thought about heading over to the Starr Hill Biergarten to enjoy an Oktoberfest in the afternoon sun. A few seconds of tapping on my phone suggested there are three ways to get from the mall to the Perch: a two-minute, one-stop Metro ride that would drop me two blocks from the Perch; a five-minute drive (a jaunt Waze suggests is faster when you get onto the Beltway for one-third of a mile); or a meandering 27-minute walk that crosses seven lanes of traffic, skirts Beltway cloverleafs, and follows sidewalks through office parks before taking a bridge over the Beltway and into Capital One Center. How refreshing that Tysons still retains some sense of its (recent) past.

Capital One Center

Capital One Center, a 26-acre development near the McLean Metro station, is best known as the home of the Capital One Tower, the tallest office building in the Washington region since it opened in 2018. The rooftop Perch park and Capital One Hall have made their debuts in the past two months, and Jonathan Griffith, the managing director of the Capital One Center, says more is on the way: He expects to announce the names of three more restaurants, one of which is under Capital One Hall, sometime in November, with opening dates next year, and more on the way. “It could ultimately be a blend of restaurants, around the count of 10 to 12,” ranging from fast-casual to fine dining. In the meantime, here’s what you’ll find now.

Capital One Hall

The eye-catching building, just a block from the Metro, holds a 1,600-seat theater with three tiers and incredible sightlines from its cobalt blue chairs; the Vault, a 225-seat black box performance space; and an elegant, multitiered 15,000-square-foot lobby with a sweeping grand staircase, designed to hold corporate meetings and receptions as well as serve drinks at intermission.

Capital One Hall welcomed its first patrons for a performance by Josh Groban on Oct. 1, followed by two nights of Little Big Town. Upcoming weeks bring comedian D.L. Hughley (Oct. 22), the Virginia Chamber Orchestra (Oct. 23) and a three-night, five-performance run of the Broadway musical “Waitress” (Oct. 29-31). Off the main stage, the Vault is being used as a screening room for the Washington West Film Festival (Oct. 23).

The venue’s size, and ambitions to mix music and touring musicals, make it comparable to the Warner Theatre (1,847 seats) or the National Theatre (capacity 1,713), but executive director Dolly Vogt says that doesn’t mean they’re in competition: “I think people are going to see you can play the Warner, and then you can play here, too,” given the size of Fairfax County, and the fact that some people would rather not deal with driving into Washington.

In the interest of being a good neighbor, Capital One is allowing Fairfax-based nonprofit arts groups, schools and agencies to use the space at special reduced rates.

7750 Capital One Tower Rd., Tysons.

The Perch and Starr Hill Biergarten

Anyone wandering around Capital One Center right now finds mostly empty glass/marble/steel streetscape, the Capital One Hall box office and a Wegmans. But step into a modest elevator lobby on Capitol One North Road, and you’re whisked up to the Perch, a verdant outdoor park which just happens to be above the Capital One Hall.

Sculptures sit among wide concrete paths. An amphitheatre-style stage faces a wide terraced lawn, which is dotted with adirondack chairs and corn hole sets. Starr Hill’s large, L-shaped bar sits at the top, with 20 tap lines featuring beers from the Crozet, Va., brewery, as well as cocktails and cider. Grab a drink, turn around, and there’s a view of the stage — with acoustic acts playing Wednesday and Thursday, and full bands on Friday and Saturday. When there’s no music, a giant screen behind the stage is tuned to sports, particularly on the weekends.

The space fits more than 450 people, between the lawn and the section of long beer garden tables, and sometimes feels like that many folks are in the snaking lines to order beer during happy hour. Dogs laze under tables, children scamper around playing corn hole and leaping off low stone walls in the grass. (Parents, there’s a kids menu with grilled cheese and hot dogs, while you enjoy your barbecue chicken or brats.)

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It’s not obvious at first, but Starr Hill and the stage only constitute a fraction of the total Perch. (You’ll learn this if you try to carry your beer down to look at the three stonewalled bocce courts or the giant chess boards, as they technically fall outside of the beer garden.) On the other side of the roof, there’s another lawn, surrounded by wooden benches and porch swings, and a dog park, dubbed the “Sky Bark.” Behind a fence, workers are installing a mini-golf course and a food truck court, with trucks that were craned to the roof. Both are expected to open in the spring.

In coming weeks, says Starr Hill’s Griffin, the patio will be enclosed, to keep customers warm throughout the winter. He’s hoping that some of the acoustic musicians will move into this temporary indoor space when it’s cold, “just for the sake of the guitar player’s fingers.” Watch out for exclusive beers, too: When Starr Hill releases its seasonal Box of Chocolates imperial stouts — including Toasted Marshmallow and Peppermint varieties — they’ll only be on draft at Starr Hill taprooms, including Tysons.

1805 Capital One Dr., Tysons.

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The Boro

One of the elements that helps the Boro stand out from other mixed-use developments around the region is that it has what Virginia calls a “Commercial Lifestyle Center” liquor license, which allows customers to carry open containers of alcohol while wandering around the Boro. This is especially popular during events like last month’s Oktoberfest. The Boro puts a focus on local restaurants, such as Tasty Kabob, a halal eatery that began as a D.C. food truck, and Fish Taco, a Baja-inspired restaurant that got its start in Cabin John, as well as Bluestone Lane and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. There’s also the region’s largest Whole Foods, with a food hall, enormous bar, game room and second-level deck covered with TV screens. Public festivals, including a Halloween party on Oct. 30 with trick-or-treating and a dog costume contest, bring kid-friendly arts and crafts and DJs to outdoor parks.

Sandlot Tysons

Callender and Kevin Hallums have launched three of D.C.’s coolest outdoor bars in recent years, turning vacant lots into Sandlots — cultural hubs full of music, art and picnic tables where groups can gather with cocktails. But when the developers at the Boro reached out about bringing a Sandlot to Tysons, Callender was taken back. “I had never thought about Virginia,” Callender admits. “But thinking about Tysons, and how there aren’t a lot of Black establishments in Tysons, how critical of an opportunity this was to expand on the whole Black-owned narrative that we amplify.”

This Sandlot opened in July. Like the others, it’s entirely outdoors, with a converted shipping container serving as a bar, next to rows of picnic tables. Providing the backdrop: A colorful geometric mural by Baltimore-based artists Jessie Unterhalter and Katey Truhn, billed as the largest mural in the D.C. region. The adjacent parking lot has been pressed into service for “Cars and Coffee” and “Carwashes and Cocktails” events, which bring out owners of Lambroghinis, supercharged Acuras and modified Chevy Novas, who opened the hoods for crowds to admire. (The next car rally is from 9 a.m. to noon on Oct. 23.)

Weekends have brought painting classes, exercise classes, resident DJs from Rock Creek Social Club and Adobo DMV and go-go concerts, featuring D.C.’s Future Band and Black Passion Band — the Sandlot has been much more than just a beer garden, and Callender says he’s already in talks about plans for next year. “A lot of the residents that are of color, when they would patronize the spot, they were just so excited. They’re like, ‘Oh my God, we need more of us out here.’ And I think that’s how you can authentically diversify a neighborhood.”

1640 Boro Pl., McLean.

Showplace Icon

“In the area’s competitive high-end moviegoing game — a market that already features several swanky cinemas under the Alamo Drafthouse, Angelika, ArcLight, iPic and Landmark brands — the $20 million-plus Showplace Icon has moved the ball forward in a way that makes moviegoing feel, suddenly, not just self-indulgent, but sinfully decadent.” That’s how Post movie critic Michael O’Sullivan described the March 2020 opening of the 14-screen Showplace Icon Theatre — an opening that occurred just before everything shut down. Otherwise, there might have been more attention lavished on a theater with heated, reclining seats; swiveling trays; cocktail and craft beer menus; and popcorn topped with bacon or caramel. Oh, and 4K projection on wall-to-wall screens and Dolby sound that packs 60 speakers into a theater, if you really care about the movie.

Programming primarily consists of first-run Hollywood films, but there are also some festivals, such as Washington West Film Festival (Oct. 24). If you’re feeling indulgent, the theater offers private gaming parties, where groups of up to 42 can bring their favorite video game consoles and play “Call of Duty” or host FIFA 22 tournaments on a giant screen for hours on end.

1667 Silver Hill Dr., McLean.

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Tysons Corner Center

Tysons’ flagship attraction may not have the cachet it once did, but it’s not down, if a recent Friday visit was anything to go by. Tour buses disgorge large groups into department stores, and the line to get into the Apple Store — the first Apple Store, opened in 2001 — requires stanchions and earpiece-wearing crowd control, making it officially the hottest club in Tysons.

While retailers worry about what post-pandemic shopping might look like, Tysons is trying to give people experiences they can’t get browsing Superdry jackets or Adidas soccer jerseys on their laptops. There’s Selfie WRLD, a “selfie museum” that allows visitors to pose for photos in more than 20 elaborate “photo rooms.” (Outfit changes are encouraged.) There are new restaurants, including “white tablecloth Yemeni food” at Marhaba, in the third-floor food court and Bisnonna Bakeshop, an Italian bakery from Annandale that won a “Shark Tank”-style competition to set up rent-free inside the mall and serve its handmade cannoli.

Throughout the summer, the plaza between the Metro station and the mall featured live music on Thursday and Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons, sponsored by local radio stations, a monthly outdoor movie series, as well as happy hours and bingo nights. Activities continue into the chillier months with Barrel and Bushel’s Crafty Hour, which can teach anyone how to knit a blanket in support of the Tiger Lily breast cancer foundation, no experience needed (Oct. 26), and the Fallfest outdoor movie screening to support Big Brothers Big Sisters (Nov. 6).

And then, of course, there’s Christmas, every mall’s favorite season. The holiday tree is lit on Nov. 19, leading to a month of Breakfast With Santa (Dec. 4), pet-friendly Yappy Hour With Santa (weekly, Dec. 6-20) and Sensory Santa (Dec. 12), for children with special needs. Bring the kids, bring your adorable pooch and, hey, how about you pick up a new bathrobe for Mom while you’re at it?

1961 Chain Bridge Rd., McLean.