|Andrew Lindemann Malone's Internet Playpen|
Silver Spring Independent Restaurants vs. Soulless Corporate Invaders
In the coming weeks, various constituents of a new Restaurant Corner will open up at the most important intersection in beautiful downtown Silver Spring: Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue ("Where U.S. Route 29 Turns Left"). These restaurants will sit about 100 feet from both the AFI Silver Theater and the Discovery Channel headquarters, and they'll occupy an Art Deco facade restored partially with county money.
They're also all soulless national chains: Austin Grill, Macaroni Grill, Red Lobster, T.G.I. Friday's, Potbelly Sandwich Works, and Panera Bread. Not that soulless corporatism is bad! That's how we got Chipotle, the McDonald's Corporation's act of supreme gastonomic atonement, which is coming to City Place in March! But I think we can all agree that given a choice between a soulless national chain and a similar but clearly superior local alternative, we'd choose the local alternative. The problem is, most people who are unfamiliar with an area say, AFI Silver patrons in town to see some cinematic masterwork, or Discovery Channel employees transferred from Bethesda just a few months ago don't know where these local alternatives are, and gravitate towards the predictably mediocre alternatives for lack of information. That's where I come in.
I haven't been to all of these chain restaurants, it is true, but the point of chain restaurants is that you know basically what they're giving you, even if you've never been there before. In all these cases but one, I have someone that can give it to you better. (Sometimes the reviews I have linked to are not entirely complimentary, but they are wrong.)
Austin Grill vs. Mi Rancho: Mi Rancho cleans Austin Grill's clock on every single aspect of the restaurant experience except beer. Food? Whatever you want to compare, Mi Rancho holds an advantage: the fajitas sizzle with better-calibrated spices and more generous helpings of salsa and guac, the tacos and burritos have an earthier yet fresher flavor (Mi Rancho doesn't put its burritos in aluminum foil because they bring them to you straight outta the kitchen), the chips sometimes come out still warm, and the salsa sparkles to match. They cook a whole fish well too, which is something Austin Grill doesn't even attempt. While Austin Grill offers more margaritas, Mi Rancho's are better.
Atmospherically, the two can't compare: Mi Rancho has a lovely outdoor patio, now covered and heated for the winter, that's spacious and cozy at the same time, while indoors the furnishings have the wear and tear of love in woods and earth tones. Mi Rancho has also donated the smell of frying, well-seasoned meat to downtown passersby for years and years now. What the hell has Austin Grill ever done for anyone, besides served beer on draft? And who cares when you've got a cold bottle of Negra Modelo in hand? Go to Mi Rancho exclusively it's tucked away a mere block-and-a-half from the city center but a world away from stressful traffic and regret nothing.
Macaroni Grill vs. Sergio's: To the best of my understanding, Macaroni Grill's supreme ambition in life is to surpass Olive Garden. Screw that crap. How about some real Italian food at Sergio's? Tucked away inconspicuously in the bottom of a Hilton two blocks from the new Restaurant Corner, Sergio's has been turning out fine pastas and Italian meat dishes ever since I can remember. In fact, one of my first restaurant-going memories was being herded into Sergio's! It was good! I haven't been back recently, but I'm going to go sometime soon just to show Macaroni Grill what I think of its presence.
Red Lobster vs. Crisfield: Let's see here: You can go to the one restaurant known region-wide as a Silver Spring institution, the high-class joint that thrived during Silver Spring's long-ago heyday and survived the bad years on pure merit, a restaurant repeatedly immortalized in the fictions of bestselling author George Pelecanos. Or you can go to some thoroughly anonymous chain whose advertisements seem fixated on the sheer volume of food you can get for some price that makes you wonder, "Isn't there kind of a minimum I want to pay for seafood? I mean, that stuff can make you sick." I got to tell you, I'm not a huge seafood fan, but when I eat it I damn well better be eating good seafood, because bad seafood is either nearly inedible or just indigestible. Hit Crisfield for the oysters, the bisque, or the crabcakes, and eat with confidence and pleasure.
T.G.I. Friday's vs. Parkway Deli and Tastee Diner: The obvious competitor for T.G.I. Friday's is actually the pre-existing Ruby Tuesday's in City Place, but that restaurant has a bad record of making me sick. Let us ignore it. What do people want when they go to T.G.I. Friday's? Essentially, tasty fried food of some sort and truly excessive desserts. We have two of those!
A short drive towards Bethesda from downtown (see, rich people seeing movies at the AFI, I already have you partway home!), Parkway Deli serves both fine Jewish food and excellent secular food, both dominated by simple entrees like matzoh ball soup or grilled liver and sandwiches that come out packed with fresh, tasty corned beef or ham or whatever it was you ordered. The Parkway also puts out a pickle bar unmatched in the area, at least to my knowledge. But the crowning glory of the Parkway is its desserts, which see your Triple Brownie Fudge Sundae and raise it in actual quality. Cheesecake, pie, regular cake some of my favorite dessert memories took place at the Parkway deli. If you're out to indulge, you can do a lot worse than look to the Parkway. Like going to Friday's!
Right smack in the middle of downtown and even more an institution is the Tastee Diner, which was displaced from its former location to its current site next to Mi Rancho by the Discovery Building itself. Open 24-7, the Tastee will fry anything to get you full and feeling better about life: burgers, chicken, steak, potatoes, whatever. Some of the waitresses are authentic diner-type waitresses, with salty attitudes but fine service; some are a little cheerier and a little less careful, but it's easy to forgive. The displacement means the decor is no longer entirely authentic diner, but there's still a jukebox and a 1950s counter. And Tastee serves up both homemade pie and some wonderful shakes, surpassed in the area only by those served at Gifford's in Bethesda. Of all the restaurants in beautiful downtown Silver Spring, this one has the most Proustian associations pour moi; eating that applesauce still plunges me deep into a reverie of rememberance. Fortunately, I'm usually having too much fun to care.
Potbelly Sandwich Works vs. Polonez: I really have no idea what Potbelly serves, and Robert Kahn informs me that they do a good job, so this is more of a pitch for Polonez, which is the only place I know of in the area where I can order a sandwich filled with meats whose names I can't pronounce. Renowned for its Polish products, Polonez stocks extra-flavorful kinds of pork and pungent cheeses from that beknighted nation that make for extremely odd and addictive sandwich experiences. You can also get regular deli meats on your baguette, rye, wheat, white or croissant, all of which are superior. They'll try to upsell you every single time you order deli meats in what they judge are insufficient quantities, and some of the stuff they'll try to upsell you is really good, so if you have an extra five bucks in your pocket you might as well just go with the flow. Also pick up some mustard.
Panera Bread vs. nothing: I don't think Polonez can take on two places, although they do have a pretty good bakery for what they do. Plus I am looking forward as much as anyone to having good danish two blocks away. Still, that's 5-1 for independent Silver Spring restaurants. Try a restaurant with a real home and see how much better it feels!
Next: Silver Spring restaurants I like that no one dares step up to challenge because they would get beat down even more severely than these chump chains did.
Update: Panera's danish suck. Covered with sugary almond glaze that obliterates what should be but isn't the distinct butter flavor of the pastry dough, too large to hold together after a couple bites, pedestrian fillings. I am sad. Panera forfeits. Indies win 6-0.
All this tasty writing ©2002-11 by Andrew Lindemann Malone. All rights reserved.