Saturday, I headed to Taste of Bethesda in my rain slicker and warm sweater.
This rainy, cold, windy day is unusual weather for early October in the DC area; the temperature was in the 50s—about 20 degrees lower than normal. But despite the showers, Taste of Bethesda vendors were out in full force. There were close to 60 restaurants represented, and non-stop musical performances. You could see people swaying in their rain coats and umbrellas. Others were huddled under awnings, eating out of paper bowls and plates filled with foods from around the world.
Taste of Bethesda is the perfect opportunity to learn about the restaurants in the area, some you may never have seen otherwise. Like Saveur India, an Indian restaurant near Trader Joes on Wisconsin Avenue. That was new to me. Another place that benefited from exposure here was Bundles of Cookies, a store tucked away in a small shopping center on Hampden Lane. Their colorful cookies were a huge hit on this chilly day.
You didn’t see many strollers or kids; it was almost an adults-only type of party. Despite the weather, everyone seemed pretty festive. I interviewed Beverly, a Bethesda Urban Partnership volunteer whose day job is with Geico. She was selling cold water. She told me that water was not the most popular item this year, so she didn’t have much to do. But she was upbeat when she said, “It is cold, but it’s nice here. The food smells good, the music is good, it’s fun.”
I spoke to Caribou Coffee’s store manager Jennifer Stiles, along with co-worker Anthony Wilson. They were bundled in layers. Stiles says, “I don’t think we expected it to be this cold, but we’re just kind of rolling with it; selling a lot of hot coffee which is no surprise. We’ve had to improvise and layer on a couple of extra T-shirts to stay warm, and borrow some clothes.”
Wilson added, “It’s been good though. The number of people is not a lot less than last year, but they are leaving faster than they did last year—staying for an hour rather than the whole event.”
Chef Jeremy Hummer, co-owner of Nest Cafe and Wine Bar, was boiling a big cauldron of mussels. I told him he was lucky that he got to stay warm next to the fire. His answer, “Yeah, I’m by the fire which is the warmest, but it’s also the wettest.” He pointed up: “No tent over your head."
Hummer and his co-owner Josh seemed unperturbed by the soaking rain. "Sure, it’s been wet, but we’re having fun as usual. We’ve served about 150 to 200 people today. We already sold 25 pounds of mussels!”
Hummer was standing next to a phenomenon that drew dozens of people to watch in awe, and also soak up some warmth. Ramon Martinez, the head chef at Jaleo, was preparing his chicken, vegetable and mushroom paella in the biggest pan I’ve ever seen. I asked him how it was going. “Paella—it’s been a big challenge today with the weather,” said Martinez. “Normally it’s sunny and pretty easy.”
He was stirring while the liquid was soaking into the rice. Everyone was standing around captivated, anticipating their first bowl. The paella was piping hot, rich and smoky. It was filled with fresh zucchini, cauliflower, artichokes—the perfect dish for this weather. Okay, I retract that. The perfect dish for any weather.
Two tents over, standing alone was John Hughes, who explained he was one of the owners of the Bethesda Haagen Dazs. We laughed over the fact that that he was not making brisk sales today, but while I was talking with him, people did line up for some cones.
Hughes explained, “Surprisingly there have been a few die-hard ice cream lovers that have gotten ice cream today. We love this event, because it’s always a big draw, and everybody comes out. If it would’ve been yesterday I would’ve had a line to the curb. I only remember one time that it’s been like this. Usually it’s pleasant. We’ve been in [Taste of Bethesda] for five or six years now.”
Fred Napps was representing the radio station Mix 107.3. He told me the event had been a lot of fun. His co-worker Karin added, “Besides the cold freezing weather, the vendors and the food have been great. The whole atmosphere and the people have been really cool.” They said their favorites were Indian food, from Haandi, and cookies from Bundles of Cookies.
What drew so many people out in this dismal weather, I wondered? So I asked those who were enjoying their meals under any shelter they could find.
Two charming self-proclaimed “foodies” told me they never miss this event. David and Kay Graham were devouring bowls of food when I met up with them. David shared his enthusiasm for this annual gathering: “We’re here to have fun, congregate with people, taste some of the food. I’m eating spicy shrimp to die for from Black Finn, and Kay’s eating their soup—it’s delicious. We went to Morton’s—the steak was great. We’ve had a lot: steak, shrimp, butter chicken.”
I was impressed, and mentioned that that they probably wouldn’t feel like eating any dinner tonight. “We’re dining with Jenny Craig tonight!” David chuckled, but then he added, “Even with the rain, with this atmosphere, you couldn’t keep us away. We always come. This is probably our sixth year. It’s great to get people out in the community. Usually there’s not this much mingling, but today is exceptional, everybody is friendly, even despite the weather.”
I think that really sums up why the Taste of Bethesda remains a much anticipated and beloved event in our community. The opportunity to meet chefs/restaurateurs in person, to try food from new places, to see your neighbors—that’s what makes Taste of Bethesda special. It doesn’t matter if the weather is dreadful.
And thanks to all the friendly vendors who let stay dry under their tent and answer my questions.