Old City Charm with New City Class

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gazebo in Bethesda
Photo Credit: Angelina Lewis

By Angelina Lewis

The image that sticks out in my mind is the gazebo.  It was nestled in in the middle of a downtown park where children were playing on bright yellow slides and jumping off swing sets. Looking almost forgotten, I watched as people passed it by without a second glance.  Many small statues of people topped the structure, including a woman wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, a male runner, a woman walking a dog, and a couple pushing a baby stroller.  I saw evidences of each of these groups on multiple occasions throughout my journey, which made it the perfect depiction of Bethesda, Maryland.  The city has come a long way from its humble beginnings to become the multi-cultural hub it is today.

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Bethesda Central Farmer’s Market
Photo Credit: Angelina Lewis

 

After grabbing a pumpkin chai at the Caribou Coffee chain to help warm me up from the chilly fall weather, my mom and I headed to the popular Bethesda Central Farmers Market.  Open every weekend, the market has 45 vendors and live music.  There was a nice community feel to the event, especially since it was located in the parking lot of the Bethesda Central Elementary School.  The locals I passed at the market were all well-dressed in their fancy sweaters and boots, which made me compare this large, well-attended community event to the typical farmers markets in my town.  Each resident was carrying a reusable grocery bag, knowing that there is now a fee for shopping bags in Montgomery County.  The market showcased the traditional fruits and vegetables, as well as unexpected items such as steak, lamb, fresh coffee, and homemade crepes.

No trip to this city is complete without a visit to Bethesda Row, which includes 192 restaurants and 520 shops.  The streets were lively with people walking through crosswalks and drivers trying to find a parking garage or a place to parallel park.  Everywhere around me, I could hear the sounds of children playing, friends catching up, dogs barking, and people whizzing by on bikes and scooters.  We walked along the old cobblestone streets and started looking at the trendy shops on the row, each one decorated with strings of twinkly lights.  I gazed up at all of the modern million-dollar apartments and lofts situated above the shops.  The Row included the Down Dog Yoga studio where make-up clad women were coming out in groups with brightly colored yoga mats tucked under their arms.  They all chatted busily about their families or their weekend plans as they took the occasional sip from their reusable water bottle.  There were several privately owned hair and nail salons; however, comparatively they were much fancier than the salons I am accustomed to seeing.  Each space was decorated with tranquil colors and some of the spaces had waterfalls inside.

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Bethesda Row
Photo Credit: Angelina Lewis

Every store I passed had a unique, sophisticated name, such as Sassanova City, Ginger, and a place called Dolcezza that served gelato and espresso drinks.  We decided to enter a store called Lou Lou.  The business opened five years ago at a different location that was “about as big as a shoe box,” according to co-founder Ben Wegdam.  The current location on Bethesda Row is about ten times larger than the original location.  The store was organized similar to a large chain accessories store in my hometown mall called Charming Charlie’s.  Both shops organize their merchandise by color and sell items such as jewelry, scarves, headbands, sunglasses, and watches.   Each store has similar decorations, with pretty, feminine wallpaper and sparkly, oversized chandeliers.  One of the few stores I saw that can be found all throughout Maryland instead of only in Bethesda was Barnes and Noble.  It was the largest one I had ever seen, with three levels and a Starbucks inside.  Outside, there was a beautiful fountain and an array of plaques on the building with quotes from historical icons like Gandhi and Dr. Seuss.  One person even brought his dog inside the bookstore and nobody seemed to notice, which I thought was extremely fitting considering how many people own dogs in the city.

For dining, I have never seen so many ethnicities represented in one city.  For instance, there was Mama Lucia and Assagi Mozzarella Bar for Italian, Jaleo Mexican and a restaurant selling homemade empanadas, an Irish Pub, Pandori Nights for Indian cuisine, Lebanese Taverna, Tara Thai, and Sweet Green for organic and vegetarian options.

In the end, we decided on Café Deluxe for lunch, which is a traditional American bistro restaurant located on Bethesda Row.  It partly drew us in because of the large Zagat Award sign proudly displayed in the window, along with a sign informing potential guests that they were voted “best brunch” in a 2012 issue of Bethesda Magazine.  Plus, the restaurant was jam-packed, which is usually a good sign.  After waiting about 40 minutes to be seated, we were led to our table, and I was able to settle into the ambiance of the restaurant.  It was very well decorated, with low lighting, oversized mirrors, fancy wood paneling, decorative lanterns, multiple pieces of artwork, and a black and white checkerboard floor.  There was an outdoor seating area as well, with wicker chairs, café tables, and umbrellas that were a nice contribution to the bistro feel.  Immediately upon sitting down, I could hear an assortment of foreign accents from the guests around us, which spoke volumes about the cultural melting pot that the city has become.

After studying the menu, which included a wide array of different foods such as soups, sandwiches, tacos, burgers, ribs, and fish, I decided on a Turkey BLT.  Although a food runner swiftly brought out our food, the waiter was right behind her making sure everything was perfect, which I thought was a nice touch.  The sandwich was enormous and was served on toasted sourdough bread with their house special avocado mayonnaise.  Our waiter returned with our bill and said, “Enjoy the rest of your Sunday, ladies” as we headed out to further explore the city.  This meal was unquestionably the highlight of my day because of the excellent service and delicious food.

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Georgetown Cupcake
Photo Credit: Angelina Lewis

Georgetown Cupcake is another important stop for me when visiting Bethesda.  The shop’s pink and white color scheme and girly décor were very inviting, despite the fact that the popular shop itself was very small and crowded.  I decided on one of their specialty fall flavors: pumpkin cheesecake.  By the time we had gotten our cupcakes, the line to enter the store had grown and was wrapped around the corner.  This is proof that cupcakes truly are a growing trend in the culinary world, which owners Sophie and Katherine have definitely recognized.  Sophie says, “Cupcakes really do speak to you.  There’s something intrinsically personal about them.  People are fanatic about cupcakes.”

The Bethesda Row Arts Festival is a yearly occurrence and is on its 16th year.  I am not usually one to like arts and crafts, but my mom loves these types of events, so I decided to give it a try.  The festival was located right on Bethesda Row, so it was fascinating to see the same space I had explored the weekend before be transformed into a fairground.  There were numerous white tents set up along the sides of the street and each artist had a tent to display their upscale works of art.  There were different kinds of artist mediums such as oil paintings, pastels, and watercolor.  People also exhibited their trendy hand-made jewelry, ceramics, glass, sculpture, and photography.  Overall, we learned that about 190 artists were in attendance and they came from all around the country.  There were even some winners from previous years there to display their work.  It was nice to see that the event hosted a charity art sale to benefit Bethesda’s National Institute of Health and its children’s charity.  The event was not only entertainment for the community, but it supported a local charity as well.

One of my favorite artists at the festival was Fong Choo, who specialized in ceramics.  My mom and I have both taken beginner ceramics classes in the past, so we understood the difficulty of the craft and were especially impressed by his work.  His focus is in making teapots, but they are not the traditional teapots you can find in stores.  Each one was whimsical in design and slightly tilted.  They looked as if they belonged at the Mad Hatter’s tea party in “Alice in Wonderland.”  Mr. Choo said, “I was a business major in college, but after registering for some art electives, I realized that art was my true passion.  I am passionate about teaching too and I teach art at Bellarmine University in Kentucky.”  He rightfully ended up winning best in category for ceramics.

Another artist’s work I appreciated was by a jeweler named Megan Clark.  My mom has recently taken up the hobby of jewelry making in her spare time and she particularly enjoyed looking at Clark’s work.  Just like Fong Choo, Clark’s work was unique and different from anything I had ever seen before.  Her pieces were all handcrafted metal and had distinctive geometric designs.  Her various rings, necklaces, bracelets, and earrings took the forms of circles, diamonds, and squares, in addition to some interesting pieces shaped like seaweed and pterodactyl wings.  Interestingly enough, she too did not think she would end up as an artist.  When referring to walking away from her fashion major to pursue a riskier career in art, Megan Clark said, “It was scary, but the best thing that’s happened with all this is it made me trust in myself.”  She ended up winning second place for best in show for the entire event.  It was amazing to me that two people with so much talent in their fields never expected that they would have careers in the arts.  I admire them for having the courage to change their career path in the middle of their schooling, and to something so risky like art nonetheless.  They are proof that it is important to explore different interests in life in order to find your true passion.

There were a few groups of live performers to add another source of entertainment to the event.  An electric cellist named Wytold performed at the festival on the previous day, so I was disappointed to have missed him since I play the cello.  The strings performance for this day, though, was the duo of Todd Baker and Dave Marsh on the electric violin and bass.  Their melodies sounded as if they should be separate, but they still blended together seamlessly.  They were definitely my favorite musical performance of the day.

Although I was skeptical about the arts festival at first, I ended up truly enjoying myself.  It was great to see all of these people from different origins and backgrounds come together to share their love for the arts.  I think Bethesda is a great location to hold this art festival since it represents much of what the city stands for, such as entertainment, community, culture, and the arts.  It is no wonder that this has become of the top arts festivals in the country.

My mom has seen the city’s significant growth over the years firsthand.  She said, “Bethesda has changed a great deal since I worked there in the early 1980s, but even then it was a great city.  The metro brought a great deal of new, upscale businesses, boutiques, and restaurants to the area.  Some of the old spots I enjoyed remain, though, such as the farmers market.  Bethesda has interesting landmarks and top notch ethnic restaurants and shopping, but still maintains that old city charm.”

Once I researched the city, I, too, found that Bethesda has grown significantly in a rather short period of time.  It is hard to believe that the city began as a tiny settlement that served to connect to Georgetown.  As some may say, it was little more than a “wide spot in the road.”  The opening of the Metro station in 1984 was truly what sparked the city’s development.  Alex, a Bethesda resident of nearly four years who appreciates the city’s transportation system, says, “I can walk everywhere if I choose, yet also keep a car and am able to easily drive somewhere for a weekend trip.  It is easy to hop on the Metro and be in downtown D.C. in 20 minutes.”

Another big step for the city occurred in 2006.  At this time, a two-year construction plan began to add 180 apartments and more upscale retail and restaurant spaces to the town.  Consequently, the number of domestic visitors increases by the millions each year.  “It’s always been our plan to continue to grow in Bethesda,” says Don Briggs, senior vice president of development at Federal Realty Investment Trust.

The distinction of Bethesda was evident from the moment I stepped off the tall escalator in the metro center to find a gorgeous waterfall and the city spread out before me.  The city has a certain sophistication and class that cannot be matched by any other.  I felt a real connection to Bethesda, and after getting to know it a little better, I realized that I aspire to live in a place like this one day.

Now that I think about it, I remember having this feeling when I visited the city for the first time a few years ago.  It’s crazy to think that my sole motivation for visiting the city in the first place was to taste a cupcake from Georgetown Cupcake.  As I walked down Bethesda Row for the first time, observing the people and engaging in some of the shopping and dining that the city is known for, I immediately felt right at home.  I could clearly imagine myself waking up in one of the swanky, modern apartments above the shops before walking my dog outside and grabbing a cup of coffee from one of the local coffee shops.  I would then change into my power suit, head to work, and end the day with dinner at one of the ethnic restaurants or at a concert downtown.  I have never lived right in the heart of a city where there are so many things to do right outside your door, and this experience made me realize that it is something I would like to try one day.  Plus, the city is close enough to my hometown that I could still maintain a sense of comfort and familiarity.  As day turned to night in the city and the white tents at the arts festival were taken down, I headed back to the dim and dirty metro station as the train zipped me back to reality.

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