Friday, March 4, 2011

Thoughts On Columbia Village Centers: Central To History, But Not To The Best Eating Today

Chick n' Friends. That's food worth
checking out a village center.
Let me start by assuring everyone that I don't question the divinity of James Rouse.

Rouse created Columbia.  He brought education and culture.  He desgregated Maryland.  With his blue ox Babe, James Rouse carved the Grand Canyon when he once dragged his ax behind him.  I am neither educated or inspired enough to take on a real folk hero.

I'm just saying that Rouse's classic Columbia is almost irrelevant to current good food.

Mostly, I have been thinking about village centers.  Lots of people think about village centers.  They post about them.  They pick houses to be near them.  They talk about redevelopment, and they even announce plans to redevelop them.  But few people are eating great food in village centers these days.

Each center may have one or two places that stand out.  But paens for the village center mystify me because they're hard to find and that makes it hard for people to find the restaurants among them.  Writing about "downtown" Columbia seems even weirder because the mall and office buildings don't seem like great places to eat -- although I guess they could be because all the people certainly attract popular chains.  New Howard County residents tweet that they can't find anything to eat.  They're wrong, but they're not crazy.

So much village center Chinese, but
no Grace Garden or even Red Pearl
After much wondering, I think it is fair to say that Rouse created a commercial system designed for a Connecticut insurance company.  If you own a village center, you have no competition inside your neighborhood -- and very little prospects at attracting business from beyond.  That seems to be why village centers fall into the pattern of dry cleaner, barber, hair salon, Chinese joint, pizza place, maybe ice cream, maybe fast food, maybe deli, probably a bar that serves burgers, wings, and some American basics.

Useful, neighborhood places, but nothing that has inspired me to drive anywhere except Maiwand Kabob in the past six months.  The low-capital, low-aspiration pattern replicates itself outside Columbia.  Look at the repetition of dry cleaner, barber, Chinese and Dunkin Donuts in shopping centers along Rte 108, Rte 216 or Johns Hopkins Road.  Maple Lawn's developers talked a big game, but even they are finding success now with Looney's and zoning for drive-through fast food.

Of course, there are exceptions among the village centers.  This is a few: 
But that's a tiny slice of the good food around here -- and they're places that I like mostly from afar.  Even though I have wanted to try those Old Bay wings for more than a year, Oakland Mills sits at the end of a long and winding road from my house.

Maiwand.  Great food anywhere.
So how are interesting restaurant areas born?  To my eye, the affordable ones often come from risky real estate.  Arlington, Hamden, U Street, and Silver Spring are all real neighborhoods that saw bad times and then building-by-building redevelopment when single landlords took risks on people crazy enough to run exceptional kitchens in unusual spots.  Based on that experience, the mall, the "downtown" Columbia office buildings, and the village centers seem poor candidates to imagine innovation.  I feel like the chatter about Howard County emphasizes the wrong places.

Downtown Ellicott City lives up to the hype (and overcomes its parking woes) to host some really good, new spots like Pure Wine Cafe and Portalli's.  But I keep returning to the food clusters that have sprung up along U.S. 1 in Elkridge/Jessup/Laurel and in the triangle of Dobbin Road, Snowden River and Oakland Mills Parkway.  Just to name a few, you can find R&R Taqueria, Mom's Organic Market, Frank's Seafood, Sushi Sono, Bon Fresco, Nazar's Market, and Frisco Tap House.  Farther north, I'm still exploring the casual Korean restaurants clustered along Rte 40 with other places like the Canopy, Caspian Market, and Kolache Kreations.

None of those last three options are scenic.  None are neighborhoods with the walk-around feel that causes palpitations among urban planners or food bloggers.  They don't have the pedigree that creates go-to stories for newspaper reporters.  But they have clusters of food, and people should accept the reality if they want to eat well.  These areas have easy access, visibility from the street, and competition from joint to joint.  They're where the conversation should be.

Earlier this year, I ran two posts about the Korean scene along Rte 40 in Ellicott City.  In 2009, I wrote about the "foodie frontier" along U.S. 1.  I'll try to follow this up with an updated tour down U.S. 1 and a scan through the "Dobbin Triangle."

What food do you love in the Columbia village centers?  What do you think should get people to drive into your neighborhood?


Tom Coale (HCR) said...

Great post.

sherringham said...

You forgot trattoria de enrico in Kings Contrivance! My new favorite there is the spinach, broccoli, and cheese calzone!

Mo said...

Agree with the comment on Trattoria in KC (there's also one in Dorsey Search).

You make a really good point - it's difficult to navigate around places in Columbia if you don't know the area. And outside visitors are precisely what a high-end equivalent to Portalli's would need. Fine dining isn't a several-night-a-week option for most people (including me), even if it's right down the street and convenient.

Case in point - the rise and fall of Fire Rock Grill.

Exception - The Melting Pot, but that's relatively accessible when compared with other village centers and has a big chain name behind it.

This brand-recognition/reliability is probably why we have about 50 Dunkin Donuts. I would love to have a Kolache Kreations even close to one of my daily commutes - but the route is littered with DD and 711 instead, and if I can't plan to take the 20 minute trip out of the way, I settle.

But is there a solution to this, or are we just looking at the problem? Would the fix be in raising awareness of the gems so they have a chance to thrive? Or would it be changing the environment to foster 'riskier' business and generate competition that forces the current establishments to step up their game?

BeerGuy said...

Tour de force.

I think the Rouse legacy actually inhibits already established restaurants who are trying to do little, creative things to grow their business and make it more exciting for consumers.

You've got a bunch of by-the-numbers types at various county bureaucracies who don't give a damn about vision or growth and only stick to the code which seems to have been written decades ago.

There needs to be a transition in Columbia, acknowledge Rouse mostly achieved his vision and break from some of the adherence to that for something still mostly Columbia/Rouse but also more up to speed with the limitations of the old model.

Unknown said...

I've never made a bad choice at Tokyo Cafe in Wilde Lake.

Marcia said...

I don't know what can be done. There are plenty of people in Howard County who just want a quick meal, quality (& price) aren't as important as convenience. What will fill up my kids the fastest? They will continue to patronize the village center and mall eateries.

For the rest of us, I guess keep getting the word out about good places. And hope folks support the local gems before they fade away.

Sarah said...

Excellent post, and I agree with Mo and Marcia's comments. I think it has to do with what role the VCs have-- do they cater to a wider crowd than, say, the village? Should they? If they are just aiming for the surrounding neighborhood, then the basics are sufficient-- clearly, that's the approach folks are taking, and the approach that's working.

I think they should aim higher, but that's easy for me to say-- I don't own a restaurant in a village center.

Interested Party said...

Village Centers HAVE to cater to more than just their own neighborhoods, or they won't survive. There needs to be better signage to direct people to the centers and better signage at the centers to tell people what is in them. Currently, most of the centers are hidden within neighborhoods and behind berms and heavy landscaping. The stores and shops face inward so unless you know what is there, you won't venture in. If Jim Rouse got a do-over on village center design, he would likely make them outward facing, more visible to drive-by traffic and with a larger customer base in the vicinity.

BTW, my favorite village center restaurants are Luna Bella in Hickory Ridge (great ambience and a nice selection on the menu) and Tokyo Cafe in Wilde Lake (you can always get a seat there on a Saturday night!)

Beth said...

I don't know how I haven't found your blog earlier - I love it!

1 - I will definitely second the Trattoria in KC and Hickory Ridge Grill. For the number of village centers, you'd think there'd be more gems...

2 - Your point about the interesting food areas in 'risky real estate' is dead on. I moved from Hamden to Silver Spring to Columbia in the last 7 years, and Columbia is the most frustrating food-wise. But, we LOVE the stretch of Burtonsville just west of 29: Cuba de Ayer, Seibel's (for diner-y goodness) and Old Hickory Grill - but you'd never know it from the looks. "Yeah - it's the dive behind the liquor store/next to the gun shop. No really - it's good!"

Vida said...

Bangkok Garden is under new ownership. It was purchased by a Virginia chain, I believe Tara Thai.

Kim D. said...

We don't do Tokoyo Cafe much anymore. The food there today is not nearly as good as 5 years ago. We like Hickory Ridge Grill, but haven't been there in a while. We also love Maiwand, and that's close by.

HowChow said...

@Mo -- One part of the fun of HowChow has been telling people about good food that they might have driven past.

Lots of the comments seem very smart -- that a restaurant ambitious enough to do more than neighborhood Chinese seems to need flexible government and better signs. I hope that I have helped drive a little business to places like Bon Fresco, R&R, etc.

little audrey said...

I last went to Tokyo Cafe last year, and have been meaning to go there again. (If they build an Aldi, I'll make WL a regular stop, hint hint!) It's nothing authentic or five-star, but if it's still under $10, then it's one of the better deals around for a "ChiJaparean" buffet.

HowICook said...

I want to add to Beth's Burtonsville list HowChow favorites Soretti's Ethiopian Cuisine and Maiwand Kabob.

Burtonsville Crossing is in trouble too after Giant moved across the street to Burtonsville Town Square and the back faces the realigned Rt 29. The B Square should attract the big dining chains. That should leave plenty of opportunity for local restaurants to move into B Crossing. Apparently, Giant made sure that a competitive grocery store could not move into the old space. Hopefully, that wouldn't exclude an ethnic/regional market. It would really be cool to have the Amish market back. They can't be happy with the parking situation in Laurel. I know Burtonsville is in MoCo but it's so easy to get there on 29 from HoCo.

Morty Abzug said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Morty Abzug said...

I don't see this as much of a problem. Most of the folks reading this blog might prefer adventurous establishments that provide real ethnic foods, fine dining, or experimental menus. But the public as a whole demands other kinds of restaurants, too: fast food, subs, deli, pizza, and pseudo-Chinese places all meet a real demand. Columbia's design successfully meets both sets of needs. For every Maiwand, we really do need a Subway, a McD's, a Papa John's, and a China Kitchen. For better or for worse, that's what most people want. And hey, they're happy.

So sure -- Columbia's village centers are mostly full of chains and forgettable one-offs. But there also are a bunch of memorable places worth driving to, just as you listed. That's the same as everywhere else.

The difficulty of finding places is indeed a real problem. Although with the increasing prevalence of GPSs and map websites, perhaps it's getting better. You're still likely to drive past places without realizing it. But if you think to look, you can browse the "food" category on your GPS, or type "food near 21044" into

Jenny said...

I'm still relatively new in HoCo, but I can only assume that the rents in village centers are way out of scale with the revenue potential. The good food clusters you cite are all in places where the rent must be cheaper.

There are a few places we eat in Dorsey Search. Yama Zushi is fairly new and it isn't Sushi Sono or Sushi King, but the food is good, the presentation is pretty, and service is fast. On the other hand, if I didn't live close to it I probably would drive to one of the others. We've also enjoyed the Trattoria there (already mentioned).

By the way, your mention of Historic EC reminds me that I haven't seen any discussion here of the fact that Historic EC is admitting its first chain restaurant -- a Subway in the location formerly occupied by Sweet.