Staples won’t hold. The safety pin in my desk drawer is too small. I’m at work and the button on my pants has popped off, and I’m hiding behind my desk until help arrives.
How did I get here? I blame my wife. Sort of. It all began New Year’s Day 2014 at a grill called Brickside Food & Drink. My wife, Michelle, proposed that she, I, and our two children — Lauren and Ellie, then 12 and 9 — attempt a “fun” resolution. Instead of the tired “self-improvement” and “make the world a better place” options, Michelle suggested we eat at all of the restaurants in downtown Bethesda within a year. Great idea! we said.
You’ll gain weight, friends said, and I smugly rebuffed them. My kids are active in dance, gymnastics and basketball. My wife is a wannabe workout warrior and restricts herself to a high-protein diet. I work out, run and play ice hockey. No guts in this family.
When I finally manage to keep my pants at waist height with a binder clip big enough to secure the Pentagon Papers, I concede that 200 meals out have taken their toll.
At first, my biggest concern had been the cost. We live in Bethesda, so we’re not destitute, though up-county we could be described as “Bethesda working poor.” Our Zip code is the declasse 20814; when we visit friends in 20817, they ask who let us into their neighborhood. We bought a Cape Cod in 1996, when a house cost only slightly more than a weekend at the Inn at Little Washington. I work for a professional membership association, and my wife is a part-time reading specialist at a Catholic school. We live comfortably and anywhere else in the country would probably be considered well-off. But between us, we have only two advanced degrees, which studies confirm are six fewer than the norm here.
Still, we looked forward to a challenge that would take us out of our comfort zone. We usually eat at the same dozen places or so: Rock Bottom Brewery, House of Foong Lin , Mamma Lucia, Cava Mezze Grill .
It was a challenge, all right — even identifying the restaurants. At the time, Bethesda Urban Partnership listed 192 restaurants and cafes in the central business district, a trapezoid extending from its south end at Wisconsin Avenue and Bradley Boulevard, west to Arlington Road, north to Old Georgetown Road, northwest to Battery Lane, and east to Wisconsin. But “192” is less stable than a francium isotope (which is ironic, because Bethesda’s French restaurants are among the longest lasting). Today there might be 198 or 187 or 194. Eateries close, new ones open. Constantly. Werner Heisenberg would be stumped if asked to count the restaurants of Bethesda. So our list kept changing.
Then we realized we needed guidelines. How many of us had to eat at a restaurant? What did we have to eat? Our punctilio would have shamed Talmudic scholars. We came up with the following:
1. At least one person in the household had to eat there.
2. Food consumed had to be something substantial made on the premises.
3. We had to eat most or all of the dish.
4. No counting restaurants we’d tried before 2014.
5. Taste of Bethesda street fare would qualify because the food emanated from the restaurants’ kitchens (decided after some hand-wringing).
6. If a restaurant went out of business, we were off the hook (fare thee well, Vapiano). But if a new place came online before Dec. 31, we were obligated to eat there (hello, MoMo Chicken and Jazz ).
7. Three Starbucks, three Dunkin’ Donuts and two Subways meant we had to eat at three Starbucks, three Dunkin’ Donuts and two Subways. Different storefront, different management, different establishment.
For such a weighty task, we had to devise strategies. We calculated that we had to eat out for 20 percent of our meals. There was no way we had the time or money for four of us to eat at every place. So we assigned locations based on preference and dietary restrictions. Since Lauren is gluten-free and Michelle avoids carbs, Ellie and I were dispatched to all Italian restaurants and pizza places. With her MSG jones, Lauren volunteered to try the takeout-only Chinese food joints. She loved them.
While the kids were at summer camp, Michelle and I realized we’d go broke quickly if we took on the steak and French places in all their sauce-is-a-la-carte-for-$6 glory. Michelle caught up with friends at happy hours at places like Ruth’s Chris , Daily Grill and Cesco Osteria . Maybe the best value in the area is the $8 burger at Ruth’s Chris.
Ellie was probably the most strategically deployed. We conveniently scheduled play dates for her at friends’ houses that corresponded with meals. “Ellie can have Vace pizza with you? Oh, how nice.”
As friends learned about our resolution, some were eager to become part of the experience, not realizing what they were being dragged into. We persuaded neighbors Phil and Laurie to join us at Parva, a Latin cocktail bar, only to discover that they were remodeling and out of food. We escaped after shelling out $68 for two jumbo margaritas and a glass of wine.
Always we were asked to rank the cuisines by quality, ambiance, price and fitness for children. But we preferred to point out the oddities. Some of the restaurant names belie the delicacies within. Aden Pizza also specializes in Turkish food, while M&N’s Pizza is known for its curry. Flaxella Cafe, which sounds like a health food purveyor, serves Ethiopian. Bold Bite , home of the hot dog, makes doughnuts. One yogurt place defied all logic by introducing sushi to expand business. Hungry for Jamaican? There’s no Jamaican place per se in Bethesda, but Philadelphia Mike’s offers jerk and similar fare once a week, according to a sign outside.
Far and away the most incongruous offerings are served up by Aria Beer, Wine, and Deli. As I was ordering soup there, a man in the wine section plopped some dirty laundry on the counter to be dry-cleaned. The more I think about it, the better an idea it seems: When diners slop tomato soup onto their shirts, they’ll be in the right place. This might not be the best restaurant in Bethesda, but it’s the cleverest.
December was a blizzard of activity. We had about 30 restaurants left — the most expensive and the most dreaded — but we completed our mission at a Morton’s happy hour on New Year’s Eve.
So, what impressed us most?
It wasn’t the food. It was the dozens of owners, managers and staff who enjoy what they do. Almost every deli proprietor served us with pride and an enthusiastic smile. The young man who opened Heckman’s Delicatessen has a passion to serve great kosher-style food. The owners at Guardado’s extended their kids-eat-free deal to Ellie, who technically didn’t qualify. A manager at Stromboli Family Restaurant remembered me from years before and asked me where I’d been. For a city rated among the snobbiest, we found plenty of humble and dedicated workers.
Still, the journey was about the food. There’s a well-known management book by Jim Collins called “Good to Great.” A book about Bethesda’s restaurants would have to be called “Good to Very Good.” Of the hundreds of meals we had — Bethesda offers pretty much every cuisine except Namibian-Bangladeshi fusion — the vast majority were enjoyable but not memorable. We encountered few awful meals and only one truly outstanding meal. Chef Tony’s , Olazzo , Black’s , Bistro Provence , Persimmon and a couple of others came close.
What’s the best restaurant in Bethesda? First, a caveat: We’re more gorp than gourmet. Phyllis Richman wouldn’t let me carry her sauce-stained notepad. Many of these restaurants we’ve tried only once — a day when the chef might have received divorce papers, or lost a sous-chef or been busy setting a fantasy football team.
A chubby-cheeked chef beckons outside the restaurant serving the best meal in Bethesda. It’s one of those props you might see in Paris or Rome at restaurants trying to lure in Americans with what we think passes for charm. We had gone by that corner hundreds of times, but the interior is impenetrable from the street — no windows in front. There’s an old-tyme mural painted on the walls that simulates an outdoor Parisian cafe, so I imagined an ancient French owner running a dilapidated steak frites place, with a huge inventory of decent wine, the bottles covered in a thick dust.
Turns out, Le Vieux Logis is nothing like that. It’s bright, clean and modern-looking in a wood-paneling type of way. The ambiance is cozy: Tables are close together but not excessively so. Michelle and I tried Le Vieux Logis with two other couples, and each of us raved about our dish. I ordered duck (“Crispy moulard duck leg confit with orange sauce”), which I rarely do because it’s so easy to screw up. But the dish was masterfully cooked, with the meat practically falling off the bone. Michelle had a perfectly cooked, juicy petit filet.
Just don’t bring your kids. When our party of middle-age couples walked in, we lowered the average diner’s age to about 85. A man in a lovely tie sitting next to me looked as if he had been rolled out of Windsor Castle for the evening.
We now are looking for future challenges. Maybe Michelle and the girls could take on the nail salons or hairdressers of Bethesda, or set the record for continuously riding the Bethesda Circulator.
Just now I saw a list of 36 fitness facilities in Bethesda, not counting spin studios, hot yoga salons, boxing rings, dance halls, barre bazaars (bazaares?) and places to do other forms of exercise I’ve never heard of.
I think we found our purpose for 2015. That binder clip is still on my pants.
Michael Gips is a writer and association executive who hopes his wife doesn’t suggest shopping at all 520 stores in Bethesda. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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