The fervor for the Best of Howard County is a five-month affair. From the time the readers’ poll launches in August to the delivery of Howard Magazine’s December issue, businesses, nonprofits and readers are abuzz in anticipation of who might take home the coveted title.
At last, the wait is over.
This year, more than 16,000 voters selected their favorites in 75 categories, ranging from everyday needs like child care to special-occaision spots like event venues.
Readers’ passion is clear; when we asked voters to tell us why they chose one of their favorites, the responses were enthusiastic and heartfelt. A few of those testimonials are sprinkled throughout the results.
Editor’s note: Winners and honorable mentions were determined by popular vote. Readers were invited to vote online in August.
“All the fun of the Maryland State Fair, but none of the congestion, none of the sprawl and none of the parking hassles. This is by far our favorite event, and it's not summer unless we get to go!” —Mary Helen Sprecher, Columbia
Volunteer organization: Howard County Fire and Rescue
Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center
The Arc of Howard County
Antique shop: The Antique Center at Historic Savage Mill
The Pink Cabbage
Bookstore: Barnes & Noble
Bike shop: Race Pace Bicycles
The Cycle Mill
Bridal shop: The Bridal Boutique
Car dealership: O’Donnell Honda
When he’s in the mood for a sweet treat at work, Brian Schwenk knows where to go: the service department of his car dealership.
“Multiple times a week, I’ll go down there and a customer will have brought in cakes or cookies or something, as an appreciation to the people there,” says Schwenk, the general manager of O’Donnell Honda on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City. “That’s kind of unheard of.”
Schwenk attributes his customers’ generosity, and his dealership’s overall success, to the expertise and experience of his staff.
“People know they’re talking to someone who has knowledge, someone who can help them out,” he says. “They know we’re going to take care of the customers.”
Beer, wine and/or liquor store: Pine Orchard Liquors
The Perfect Pour
Jason’s Wine & Spirit
The Wine Bin
Caterer: Putting on the Ritz
Experience counts, they say. And nobody believes that more than Bobby Ray Mitchell, co-owner of the North Laurel-based Putting on the Ritz, a multiple-time winner of the best caterer title.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” Mitchell says of his family business’ 34 years. “We know the amounts of food to send so we don’t run out, how to handle people, how to make sure we have enough staff on each job and giving yourself plenty of time to set up.”
Putting on the Ritz specializes in tableside stations that offer, for example, three kinds of gourmet macaroni and cheese. But the business, which caters 800 events a year, has no single specialty dish, Mitchell says. “To be a caterer, you have to have a lot of specialties … to keep everybody happy.”
Howard County residents have dozens of recommendations for any occasion. Nearly 1,900 voted in our 2017 Best Restaurants readers’ poll, delivering winners in 46 categories.
Health food/supplement store: Trader Joe’s
David’s Natural Market
Place to buy seafood: Wegmans
Alternative wellness center: Maryland University of Integrative Health
The Still Point
Quiet Time Hypnosis
Audiologist/hearing repair: ENTAA Care and Kaplan Hearing Center (tie)
Costco Hearing Aid Center
Dr. Alicia D.D. Spoor, Designer Audiology
Chiropractor: Howard County Chiropractic Spine & Sports Rehabilitation
“Drs. Russ and Veronica Antico … are excellent at explaining what they are doing and why, and both have outstanding personalities.” — Kevin Murray, Elkridge
Dabbs Rehab Center of Maryland
Chesapeake Family Wellness Center
Day spa: The Pearl Modern Spa & Boutique
The Spa at Turf Valley
Lynn’s Day Spa
Brightwater: The Spa at Skin Care Institute
Dental practice: Columbia Smiles Family Dentistry
Roschella & Zinger Dental Group
Dobbin Dental Suite
Menton Family Dental Care
Eye care: Wilmer Eye Institute at Columbia
Physician’s Eye Care and Laser Center
Columbia Eye Associates
Columbia Family Eye Care
Medispa: Oasis Day Spa
Doctor K MediSpa (formerly AllCare)
Pura Vida Medical Spa
Between the Lines MediSpa
OB/GYN: Capital Women’s Care
The Women’s OB/GYN Group
John’s Hopkins Community Physicians
Orthodontist: Baltimore Orthodontic Group
Rubler & Halpern Orthodontics
Pediatric practice: Klebanow & Associates
Klebanow & Associates is all about convenience.
Voted Howard County’s best pediatric practice for 20 consecutive years, the office is open 364 days a year (every day except Christmas, although hours are limited on weekends) and has evening hours Monday through Thursday.
The staff includes 10 physicians and five nurse practitioners, three of whom are board-certified lactation consultants. It also includes a full-time pediatric psychologist, who works with the pediatricians to address behavioral issues and concerns.
“I aim to treat my patients as I would my own family, and I am thankful to be a part of a practice that shares this vision,” says Dr. Parul A. Mehta Shah, a pediatrician at the practice for the past 10 years.
Established in 1982, the Columbia pediatrician also partners with several local schools for telemedicine visits so children can stay in school, and sees newborns at Howard County General Hospital when they are admitted and when they are discharged.
“Dr. Carroll Thumel … is simply the best vet I’ve ever known. My daughter drives her cats all the way from Timonium to be treated by him.” —Linda McKeldin, Ellicott City
Triadelphia Veterinary Clinic
Cat and Dog Hospital of Columbia
Dunloggin Veterinary Hospital
Flooring and carpeting: Bode Floors
A Plus Carpet & Flooring
The Vertical Connection Carpet One
Main Street Oriental Rugs
Garden center/nursery: Frank’s Produce & Greenhouse
“Customers are valued friends at Frank’s. I will go out of my way to stop by! Flowers and plants are healthy and gorgeous, and produce is fresh and delicious!” —Gail Zanelotti, Ellicott City
Grandfather’s Garden Center
The Nursery at Lauren’s Garden Service
Heating/air conditioning repair: Environmental Systems Associates
B&B Air Conditioning and Heating Service Co.
No-Frost A/C & Heating Co.
Homebuilder: Ryan Homes
Housecleaners: The Cleaning Authority
Pioneer Custom Cleaning
Home Sweet Home Cleaning Services
Landscaper: Mike’s Landscaping Supplies
Lauren’s Garden Service
Plumber: Ken Griffin Plumbing Services
Zepp Plumbing & Heating
Mark Brew Plumbing and Heating
Real Estate Agent: Bob Lucido, Keller Williams Integrity
Creig Northrop, Long & Foster Real Estate
Jesse Hoffman, The Jesse Hoffman Real Estate Team
David Yungmann, Keller Williams Integrity
Remodeler: Cossentino and Sons Remodeling and Design
Ken Griffin Plumbing Services
Allan Homes Unlimited
Senior housing community: Vantage House
At Vantage House, a housing community in Columbia for those 60 years and older, employees do not use words like “senior” or “elderly” to describe their residents.
It’s part of the facility’s overarching effort to treat its residents as individuals, not as cliches, according to the sales and marketing director, Andrew Morgan, and it helps explain Vantage House’s popularity.
“More than anything, [our success] is based on the fact that we see the person before we see their age,” he says.
Vantage House also prides itself on giving residents a voice in how their facility is run, Morgan said. For example, a residents’ committee has as much, if not more, influence over what activities are offered than Vantage House’s paid activities director.
The Coventry School Inc. for Dogs and Their People
Family lawyer: Mulinazzi Law Office
Weinberg & Schwartz, LLC
Law Offices of Alisa G. Cummins
Law Firm of Robert L. Flanagan
Financial adviser: Geier Asset Management
Gary Williams, Williams Asset Management
Baltimore Washington Financial Advisors
Brian Avrunin, Ameriprise
Florist: Wilhide’s Unique Flowers & Gifts
The Flower Basket
Clarksville Flower Station
Interior decorator/designer: Classic Interiors
The Decorating Therapist
Terra Maria Home Interiors
Drury Lane Interiors
Pet groomer: PetSmart
The Dog Wash
The Coventry School Inc. for Dogs and Their People
Salon: Mason & Friends Salon & Sp
Pam Mason doesn’t hesitate when asked what makes her Columbia salon stand out from others in Howard County.
“I think it’s our welcoming and friendly environment,” she says. “We’re about being friends with our clients, and we love making them feel good — and making them look good.”
That philosophy helps explain the salon’s name: Mason & Friends. The name and the philosophy were the brainchildren of her husband, John Mason, a hair stylist who built the salon in its current location 21 years ago, and who died four years ago.
During the recession a decade ago, Pam Mason recalled, her husband would tell his employees not to charge hard-luck clients who’d lost their jobs. “He was about giving back, helping people that need it,” she says. “And we all still live by that.”
Travel agent: AAA Columbia Car Insurance and Travel Center
The Travel Boutique
Monica Baker Travel
Blog: HoCo Rising
Village Green/Town Squared
Pilates, Pearls, and Peanut Butter
Dr. Chao Wu
Clergyperson: Monsignor Joseph L. Luca, St. Louis Catholic Church
“Monsignor Luca is … available in a deeply personal way when needed for consolation. He’s a great teacher at Mass and is widely respected for the humor and knowledge he imparts during his ‘eight-minute’ homilies.”—Pat Kutchins, Columbia
Rabbi Craig H. Axler, Temple Isaiah
The Rev. Matthew Buening, formerly St. Paul Catholic Church
The Rev. Paige Getty, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia
Elected official: County Executive Allan H. Kittleman
County Councilman Calvin Ball
County Councilman Jon Weinstein
County Councilwoman Jen Terrasa
Personal trainer: Bonnie Pace, Columbia Gym
Bonnie Pace has given some thought to the fact that she’s been voted best personal trainer by readers five of the last six years.
The 56-year-old has come up with a couple of explanations.
“I care about my clients and their results, but I also care about them on a personal level,” she says. “I consider them all my friends.”
The fact that she’s also a licensed nutritionist also sets her apart, she adds.
“I’m in good shape for a middle-aged female,” says the former competitive power lifter and body builder. “But I’m approachable — I look like a normal human being. I don’t think I’m intimidating, but that doesn’t mean I can’t provide tough love.”
Principal: Marcia Leonard, formerly Hammond High School
Nick Novak, Howard High School
Patrick Saunderson, formerly Reservoir High School
James LeMon, formerly Wilde Lake High School
CrossFit box: CrossFit Cove
Top Tier CrossFit Columbia
12 Labours CrossFit
Dance lessons: B. Funk Dance Company
Backstage Dance Studio
Arabesque Dance Studio
Golf course: Hobbit’s Glen Golf Clu
Joan Lovelace grew up playing golf at Hobbit’s Glen Golf Course, and she remembers it as an “extremely intimidating” experience.
So when she took over 10 years ago as Hobbit’s Glenn’s head pro and general manager, her top priority was to make playing there a warm, friendly and welcoming experience.
“Our No. 1 priority for our members and guests is we want them to have fun when they’re here,” she says. To that end, she says, employees make an effort to connect with customers; they ask about their family and make them feel at home.
The popularity of the Columbia golf course — a consistent Best of Howard winner — suggests her plan has worked. And it helps, Lovelace adds, that the course is always in “terrific shape” and when golfers finish their round, they can retire to the newly renovated clubhouse for a cocktail.
Martial arts classes: American Academy of Martial Arts
Klotz Institute of Karate
WKD Karate for Girls
Hwarang Martial Arts
Music lessons: Mike’s Music
Music & Arts
Damon Foreman Music Academy
Olenka School of Music
Pool for kids: Swansfield Pool and Mini Water Park
North Saint John’s Swim & Tennis Club
River Hill Pool
Life Time Athletic
Yoga studio: The Yoga Center of Columbia
“The Yoga Center of Columbia, besides being a wonderful yoga center, is a very caring community. I always feel better after my yoga class... physically, mentally and emotionally.” —Barbara Bury, Ellicott City