Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Parking Lot Cafe: The Ultimate Howard County Experience

The great bistros of Paris offer sidewalk tables. Converted row homes in DC offer rooftop dining. Country inns nestle you into garden cuisine.

As the season warms, the question arises: What is the quintessential Howard County experience for al fresco dining?

The answer: Parking lot cafes.

James Rouse banned churches so that Columbia could worship the automobile, and several Howard County restaurants have taken up his charge by offering food with a view of the parking lot. Sure, Elizabeth Large offers the limited view in her Top 10 places to eat lunch outside with back gardens and enclosed patios. But what about good food where you can see your car?

Victoria Gastropub offers the finest parking lot cafe around. We went for my favorite local burger last week and enjoyed a warm, breezy night watching the sun set and watching our Chrysler. You could feel the vibrations of the hot rods on Rte 108. How can Citronelle compete? Victoria built its patio last summer, and the open feeling is a nice contrast with the dark, cozy feel of the indoor rooms. But they're just the vanguard for le cuisine voiture:
  • Ranazul in Fulton has a handful of tables right on Maple Lawn Boulevard. Come early so that you snag the street parking close enough so that you lock and unlock your car remotely while you enjoy tapas.
  • La Palapa Too in Laurel captures the parking lot cafe vibe. The patio out front juts into the parking lot, and the weekend ceviche appetizer is even more delicious with the taste of a cold Corona and the sound of traffic. (As bemoaned by BillZ on Live in Howard County, the shopping center with La Palapa Too and Kloby's isn't really in Laurel. It's on Johns Hopkins Road just west of Rte 29 -- very convenient to Columbia, Scaggsville or Fulton.)
  • Mad City Coffee in Columbia is built for car viewing. In winter, you can watch your car through the plate glass windows while you have house-roasted coffee, breakfast or sandwiches. In nice weather, the tables right outside let you almost put your feet up on your bumper as you sip and read the paper.
  • Maiwand Kabob in Columbia only has two tables outside, but the view is spectacular. It's cars to the horizon (or at least to the supermarket and Rita's). You could take out these wonderful grilled meats, breads and the pumpkin appetizer. But you'd have to sit in your driveway to capture the full experience.
  • Touche Touchet Bakery in Columbia offers you the chance for dessert. My favorite cupcakes in Howard County, plus an array of coffee, other desserts, and a handful of savory croissants. If you're not careful, you could end up on the side of Touche Touchet's outdoor seating, staring at a peaceful, wooded yard. But the front tables are all-parking, all-the-time.
What parking lot cafe am I missing? Where can you eat and watch your car? Great Sage in Clarksville doesn't count because the creative vegetarian restaurant tucked its patio on the side of its shopping center. The seats overlook a slopping hill and trees. It's so lush and natural that you might think you were in . . . Baltimore.

(Update: People are already pouring in other great examples in the comments. They're worth reading in full because people captured the tone in which this post was offered. A sample of the early ones:
  • rdonoghue talks up Donna's on Rte 108 in Columbia. As he notes, "on a clear day" you can see all the way to Eggspectations. Take that San Francisco Bay!
  • Billz of the Live in Howard County blog has his own list, including the River Hill Grille "that lets you contemplate automobiles and the Columbia Gym where you should be working out.")
(Update #2: You have to check out Strapazza on weekends when you can get a view of your car -- and live jazz.)

(Update #3: Check out the 2010 update on this "parking lot cafe" idea.)

Does anyone know the Cocoa Lane restaurant mentioned by Eve in this comment on Elizabeth Large's blog? She says it has a series of decks. Can you see parking? (Update: Julie says Cocoa Lane has a great view of Ellicott City's skyline, but no cars. Sigh!)

This is part of the "What I Learned" series of posts. They're organized in rings. See below to continue on the ring of ideas about food in Howard County. Or click to switch to the posts about different cuisines or posts about shopping.


Unknown said...

It seems unfair not to mention Donna's, where you can watch your car and, on a clear day, watch the cars across 108 over at Eggspectations.

-Rob D.

Work in progress said...

Brilliant post. Bravo, sir.

Julie said...

Cacao Lane actually has a nice roof top patio. No parking lot view, but a nice one of Ellicott City skyline.

Billz said...

Excellent post, indeed! Don't forget the Crepe Cafe's nod to Parisian sidewalks. There's also the River Hill Grille that lets you contemplate automobiles and the Columbia Gym where you should be working out. For that tented-in but nearly outdoors vibe, try the Waverly Grill, Jilly's in Enchanted Forest, La Palapa in EC or LeeLynn's. A couple of places that more or less do it right: Clyde's and the Coho Grill. And further afield, Baldwin's Station (if the train's not rumbling by) and Dmitri's. Didn't realize Cacao Lane had a rooftop patio...worth checking out.

Anonymous said...

I'd include Ranazul's neighbor, Looney's, too. They have outdoor seating and a boffo view of the parking lot behind the office building where Maggie Moo's is at.

Anonymous said...

This post had me cracking up! When I'm in the mood for a parking lot view, I usually hit up one of the chain places at the Columbia mall- there is an endless sea of cars to behold. :)

Brendela said...

Don't forget Greene Turtle in Columbia, Panera Bread, Chipotle (though it is more a view of the entrance to the shopping center), Pub Dog (depending on which end of the patio you are at), and even the new Chick-Fil-A on Johns Hopkins. Can you guess we have dogs and like to take them along for an outdoor meal?

Examorata said...

To continue the dessert experience, that quintessential summer stop, Soft Stuff, offers you breathtaking views of all the parking lots along Rt. 40, not to mention Rt. 40 itself!

Sheri said...

Loved this post!! The place that instantly came to my mind - except it's 1am and I'm zoning out on the name - is that cafe/sandwich shop in Ellicott City, just over the bridge on the left!!

HowChow said...

Sheri -- Do you mean Old Mill Bakery Cafe? Do they have outside seating?

Thanks to everyone for the comments. I'm glad this was fun.

Anonymous said...

If you knew anything about city planning and the career of James Rouse, you'd know that he far from worshipped the automobile and TRIED to make Columbia a walkable suburb. Try to do a little more history before you go posting your "news" online for the world to see.

BeerGuy said...

Snob alert. Lighten up.

Anne said...

La Madeleine, in the Columbia Crossing shopping center off Dobbin Rd and 175 has a nice patio with a view of the parking lot, and 175.

Sara said...

the Italian restaurant (I'm blanking on the name...)in Long Gate Shopping Center has a few tables outside; we ate outside there once and almost forgot we were at a chain restaurant!

jessiex said...

You might need a new category of places that have the gentle roar of speeding cars in the distance. The new Stanford Grill has a great outdoor patio ... overlooking Route 175. It's the Curse of Columbia! All this attention to "green space" and yet, somehow, the only restaurant I know that actually has an outdoor area that doesn't abut a parking lot and/or is so close to a highway is Second Chance Saloon.

jessiex said...

Oh, and Rams Head in Savage Mill. That is probably THE best outdoor seating. It actually overlooks trees and a bit of running water. (Not sure what to call said water: a creek? a river?)

Maria said...

No parking lot or highway views, but you should check out the outdoor seating at Coho Grille. All the locals go there on Tuesday for 1/2 price burgers. And don't forget to try the Strawberry Nachos!