Michael Mael, vice president of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore, lives in Potomac. When he and his wife feel like going out, they rarely head to Washington, DC. "We live about five or six miles from Bethesda," he says, "and everything we need is right there."
Mael worked in Bethesda in the 1980s, when there wasn't much to do. "Since the coming of the Metro," he says, "the place has changed dramatically. Now it's a community unto itself."
To wit, Bethesda's Woodmont Avenue has a clean and well-ordered—almost Disney-esque—feel to it. If you start at the big Barnes & Noble at the corner of Woodmont and Bethesda and stroll north, you'll come across trendy shops like Luna and Vivi, along with electronics boutique Bang and Olufson, as well as Cecil Jean Paris, filled with whimsical, original jewelry.
Continue on to Woodmont Triangle for more shops and galleries: Daisy Too for fun accessories, Tone on Tone for home furnishings. Then there's the St. Elmo's Fire Gallery and Light Wave on nearby Del Ray.
Happily, you'll also find plenty of room to walk around.
The Bethesda Urban Partnership was formed to promote the district while protecting it from becoming a mere bedroom community for DC. Even before the Partnership, says its executive director, Dave Dabney, developers were cut deals in which they exchanged open spaces for the right to build housing.
"There was always a sensitivity to the trees in the median strip, the public spaces, and the need to accommodate pedestrians," says Dabney, who is also secretary-treasurer of Chevy Chase Cars, a dealership on Wisconsin Avenue. "The joke around town is for 25 years I did everything I could to put people in cars, and now I'm working to keep people out of them."
It's true: Bethesda has just under 7,500 parking spaces, and even that doesn't seem like enough. But Dabney and others are loath to create more and would prefer that people park their cars and walk, or take advantage of the trolley, called the Circulator, which makes loops through popular shopping areas.
Not surprisingly, Bethesda's stock of luxury housing has increased dramatically, and along with DC professionals, the area has attracted a population of empty-nesters who wish to spend their retirement years in a stress-free, urbane locale. But the Partnership is doing its best to ensure that Bethesda doesn't price itself out of diversity: About 15 percent of housing is priced well below luxury.
Bethesda has also been declared an Arts and Entertainment District by the state; it's a designation that Carol Trawick is passionate about. Owner of a local information technology business and chair of the arts district, Trawick says that "integrating the arts into the community has been a focus of the Partnership for the last 10 years."
To that end, the second Friday of each month, 14 local galleries stay open until 9 p.m., with the trolley running continuously. Further, the Roundhouse Theater moved its main stage from nearby Silver Spring in 2002 when the Chevy Chase Bank made a pretty good offer: The building is leased to Montgomery County for a dollar a year.
The Nederlander organization is taking over the old Bethesda Theater, with plans for visits by Broadway touring companies. And then there's Imagination Stage, a children's performing-arts group, along with the exceptional Strathmore.
Of course, for some, eating is entertainment enough, and Bethesda doesn't disappoint. From the much-vaunted Persimmon to sort-of chains like Mon Ami Gabi and RiRa, Bethesda is destination-worthy for its dining options alone.
As have others, Jeff Black, president of Black Restaurant Group, has made a commitment to the area, which is clearly evolving. "Look around. The whole area is one piece," he says. "There are no lines separating the great arts from restaurants and other businesses.
"We're not the sleepy stepchild of Washington, DC, anymore."