Bethesda vs. Denver in dine-out duel


Chew on this urban legend: There are more restaurants in downtown Bethesda than downtown Denver.

So what?

Ask that when you're heading out after work for the usual peanuts-on-the-floor happy hour. Or on a Saturday night, when going out to the same-old, same-old has you sighing. Or Sunday morning, when your joie de vivre matches the nooks and crannies of the beige English muffin on your plate.

With Bethesda as your place mat, you could go entire months without seeing the same food twice.

Within a half-mile square, the unincorporated town that isn't a town but only a ZIP code has 205 places to grab a coffee and warm pastry, get a midday meal to go, have a cocktail and some munchies or linger over dinner for two.

"Sometimes," says Howard Denis, the Montgomery County Council member who represents the area, "my wife and I just park without a destination and walk around until we decide on something. We're never disappointed."

President Bush hasn't made the scene yet, but his father did several times, turning Rio Grande on Fairmont Avenue into a White House favorite.

In population, Denver outnumbers Bethesda 5 to 1. But on almost any Saturday night, Bethesda's restaurant district looks like a major city, with vested parking attendants sprinting to retrieve cars, uncommitted customers debating the menus taped to store fronts and post-dinner patrons strolling from dinner to nightcap or ice cream cone.

It helps that Bethesda is home to the Discovery Channel, the National Institutes of Health and huge office towers, all of which disgorge thousands of stomachs in search of fuel at noon and quitting time. Add to that the appetites that surface from one of two Metro stops or emerge from the 18 downtown parking garages, and Bethesda becomes one huge "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," minus Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

What a spread. There's garlic shrimp Cuban-style at South Beach CafM-i, the goat special at Delhi Dhaba, the Brazilian shellfish stew at Tyme Square CafM-i, the steamed crabs on the brown paper-covered picnic tables at the Bethesda Crab House. Afghan, Israeli, Persian, Cajun and the now-traditional Italian, Asian and Southwestern fare.

"I've never heard anyone say we're missing X, Y or Z," boasts Dave Dabney, executive director of the Bethesda Urban Partnership and cheerleader for all of this gastronomic gusto.

Dabney's group tries to keep track of who's feeding whom and is the author of the Bethesda vs. Denver legend.

Denver business folks are amused to learn of Bethesda's claim. "Why are they picking on us?" laughs Julie Tombari, a spokeswoman for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

After checking the chamber's database for the downtown area, Tombari raises the stakes in the race for restaurant superiority by claiming 267 eating establishments. President Reagan's reminder to "trust but verify" never sounded so good.

When pressed, Dabney cheerfully admits he doesn't know who did the research or how valid it is. But, he says, the legend is good enough for repeating on Bethesda UP's promotional video sent to businesses contemplating a move to Maryland.

Denis reinforces the legend when he promotes his hometown and county around the country. "When I speak around the country, it sounds like a restaurant review," he jokes. "We've become what Georgetown used to be."

Restaurants are more than places to eat, Dabney says. Restaurants are the magnet that allows Bethesda to attract other cultural happenings: revival of an art deco movie house, creation of a theater for live performances and a weekend-long program of poetry readings at 43 locations.

"People fill Bethesda because Bethesda fills the people," Dabney says with Churchillian authority.

The food shops begat interior-decorating shops -- 70 in all. Fill the stomach, fill the soul, fill the home. "My vision is tuxedoed men coming off the Metro to take in a show and have a late supper," says Dabney.

But for almost every boffo extended run, there's a limited engagement. The Bethesda restaurant scene changes frequently, with the local weekly newspaper tracking the comings and goings. Johnny Rockets -- out. Third Corner Deli -- in. Gulf Coast Kitchen -- out. Black's Bar and Kitchen -- in. When one Thai restaurant on Cordell Avenue closed, another one opened within weeks. To everything, there is a season: ginger, soy, cumin, whatever.

"It's almost reached the point of critical mass," says Denis, who has Friday morning office hours at the landmark Tastee Diner. "We must be the restaurant capital of America right now."

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