Brittney Drakeford, a self-proclaimed foodie who recently bought a house in Prince George’s County, went in search of good food. She stopped first at Mango Café, smelling the aroma of fricassee chicken simmered in green peppers and tomato sauce. She took a sample. Next, she tasted a cup of freshly picked kale bathed in tahini and lemon juice at Eco City Farms. Then, Drakeford chatted with the owner of De Ranch Restaurant, who explained his menu of chicken wrapped in cassava leaves, jollof rice and three kinds of fufu — yam, wheat and garri.
“Anybody who considers themselves a foodie realizes you have to go out and find good food like this,” Drakeford, 26, said as she sampled cuisine during the “Taste of TNI” at Bladensburg High School, which on Friday staged the kickoff tasting event for Prince George’s County’s first countywide restaurant week.
In an effort to make Prince George’s a destination for foodies and to attract more independent and fine-dining restaurants, county officials decided to establish a restaurant week, highlighting more than 30 restaurants from Hyattsville to Suitland to Laurel to Bladensburg to Mount Rainier to Landover and Bowie, each offering special deals on local cuisine through April 5.
“Dining in Prince George’s County has arrived,” Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) said as a crowd of more than 400 people gathered in the school’s cafeteria. “It is time for us to display the amazing culinary talents that are turning our neighborhoods into unique food destinations.”
Restaurant Week grew out of an idea by a team of officials working on one of Baker’s Transforming Neighborhoods Initiatives, which sought ways to improve the quality of life in six inner-Beltway communities. Officials wanted to expand the idea and spotlight restaurants countywide during what is normally a slow season.
Prince George’s, one of the most affluent majority African American jurisdictions in the country, has tried for years to attract more upscale and independent restaurants. Many county residents and politicians have complained that high-quality retail stores and restaurants have been reluctant — perhaps because of the county’s majority black status — to open new stores in the county. Baker’s administration has made courting independent and fine restaurants a priority in the county’s economic development plan.
“We have realized our population of 900,000 people is underserved by food establishments, especially on the high end,” said Pradeep Ganguly, senior vice president of the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corporation. “We have a very large number of restaurants, but many are specialty. What we have lacked for a long time is high-end restaurants, which has created food deserts. . . . Our goal is to attract high-end restaurants and food establishments to Prince George’s County.”
As incentives, the county has offered low-interest loans, tax credits, workforce development and training to food establishments.
Ganguly also points to the success of establishments that recently opened in the county. “In each of these chains, whether it is Wegmans or Copper Canyon or TGI Fridays that opened a year ago in Largo,” Ganguly said, “each one of these restaurants became a top-seller for that chain in the country. There is a need. That is a message we are sending to the restaurant community that Prince George’s County has a lot of wealth and discretionary spending and can benefit from many high-end restaurants.”
Angela Wright, vice president of marketing for the county’s economic development corporation, said there is national and international interest in Prince George’s. “There is a renaissance of sorts,” Wright said. “Prince George’s is the place to be right now. People are recognizing that.”
She recalled a recent conversation with an executive at Wegmans who she said was told not to build in the county. “They had a perception the business wasn’t going to do well,” Wright recalled. “He said he is now proud to tell people when Wegmans opened” in Largo, “it exceeded any Wegmans in the country.”
Larry Hentz, retail-business development specialist for the county’s economic development corporation, says recent sales among restaurants have shown there is a demand in the county for prepared food. “When you look at the stores and restaurants that have come to the county, they have done very well,” Hentz said. “Cheddar’s in South County has done exceptionally well. McCormick & Schmick’s in National Harbor has done exceptionally well. The chains have done exceptionally well in the county. I believe that the Red Lobster is number one.”
Hentz has a theory. “We have a longer commute than residents who live in the city and to a large extent, families eat out on an average of two or three times a week,” Hentz said. “Also it is important to understand the demographics of the county, age and income. Two-income households in Prince George’s and the high number of people with college education translates into discretionary income. They can afford to eat out. There is the capacity and the opportunity.”
Hentz added, “When any group is denied something for a long time, they tend to put extra effort into it when it becomes available.”
According to recent census statistics, the median income in Prince George’s County is $73,568, higher than the median income in the state of Maryland, which was $72,999. The median income in Montgomery County is $96,985, and the median income in Fairfax County is $109,383. According to officials, Prince George’s County has about 1,550 restaurants, compared with 1,580 in Montgomery and about 1,900 in Fairfax.
Despite the numbers, food critics say they have a problem finding exceptional restaurants in Prince George’s. “If we define fine dining as a place with a certain level of ambition on the plate, a certain charge in the room and a level of crispness and polish in the service, that kind of place doesn’t exist in the county,” said Todd Kliman, food and wine editor, and critic, for Washingtonian magazine. “It pains me because I live here. I love the county. I went to high school in the county, but people don’t really want to have that conversation. . . . They don’t want to hear speculations as to why that is.”
Kliman calls the issue a “complicated stew of race and class and people don’t really want to talk about that. It keeps the county from having certain places that other counties have. There is racism and there is classism — from without. And from within, there is cultural culinary conservatism. These things exist alongside each other, and each carries weight.”
Among suburban areas, Kliman said many of the most interesting restaurants are opening in Virginia. “You have places in Fairfax, Arlington and even in Howard,” Kliman said. “When you come back down to Prince George’s County, you’ve got some good places, but not nearly the density.”
A good restaurant has the ability to anchor a community and create a gathering place, he said. “Food is a way to bring different people together, different people from different backgrounds,” Kliman said. “Restaurants can be these places where people from all walks of life — different races, different colors, different creeds come together under one roof. They may not come together to form a common purpose, but they are there to eat. I would love to see the county have more places like that, a place not just trying to be a chain, not trying to be commercial but has some character and is idiosyncratic and has a certain soul.”