Silver Spring, Maryland is a diverse, lively neighborhood full of activity and great restaurants. I was surprised to learn this. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to dine in Silver Spring. Although it had it’s heyday in the 1950’s as one of the largest shopping districts in the area, that all changed with the 1960 opening of Wheaton Plaza just a few miles north. The downtown suffered a slow death when businesses started leaving for the new indoor mall with the last department stores, Hecht Company and JC Penney, finally leaving in the late 80’s. Over the years, multiple development plans fell through until a massive revitalization effort began in the late 1990’s.
By 2005, Downtown Silver Spring’s renewal was so successful that it was awarded a Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, and that renewal has continued at a breakneck pace for the last decade. There are an additional twelve building projects expected to be completed by 2018 and many more in the pipeline according to Urban Mid-Atlantic.
Today there is a vibrant community to explore. The center of activity is a one-block stretch of Ellsworth Street that is closed to traffic on the weekends. The downtown hosts a year-round farmers market, frequent street festivals, outdoor music events, and an outdoor skating rink in winter months. There are over 150 restaurants in Downtown Silver Spring covering a diverse range of ethnicities, and many of these restaurants are independently owned.
There are enough restaurants in Silver Spring for several food crawls. For our first adventure, we walked down Georgia Avenue and hit a few old Silver Spring institutions as well as some newer restaurants that have reclaimed old spaces. We recommend starting this crawl after 3:00 pm to arrive at Jackie’s Sidebar late enough for their 5:00 pm opening time.
On the corner of Georgia Ave and Bonifant Street, Piratz Tavern is not the kind of place you would expect to find in an urban area. The décor is full-on pirate ship with furled sails hanging from the ceiling and swashbuckling swords adorning the walls. The staff is dedicated to the theme, decked out in realistic pirate garb.
Piratz was the focus of a failed Bar Rescue episode in 2012, where the reality TV show transformed it into the Corporate Bar and Grill with a bland business theme. Within 24 hours of the makeover, the staff and loyal locals mutinied and turned it back into a pirate bar before the episode even aired. You’ll either love it or hate it, but with a story like that, you have to step inside.
Our first time here we were discouraged by the emptiness of the front room, but we quickly realized that all of the activity is in the back. The weather was nice, so we bypassed the bar and grabbed a seat outside on the caribbean themed patio. For a mere five dollars during Saturday’s extended happy hour (12-7pm), we had the Piri-Piri Chicken appetizer. Bite-size chunks of chicken swim in a spicy red pepper sauce seasoned with brandy and garlic.
The chicken goes well with a refreshing mug of Grog – a mixture of rums spiced with ginger, cloves, almond and lime. It’s pretty strong, so stick to one mug or you’ll have a really good excuse for the headache you’re going to have in the morning. If you’re not brave enough for the Grog, there is a tempting selection of pirate themed Drynkes, mostly featuring rum. On the other hand, maybe you would be safer with a beer – they have a modest selection of those too, including some local craft beers in bottles.
Stepping back outside into the 21st century, we headed south down Georgia Ave one block to Urban Butcher on the corner of Ripley. We visited Urban Butcher previously in the Redline East Food Crawl, but we have a hard time walking by without stopping in for a drink and a snack.
This time we went for the lamb tartare. This is one of those dishes that is so good, I did a little dance in my seat. Tender raw lamb with Moroccan spices is served on top of a large slab of grilled flatbread spread with hummus, creating many layers of flavor. It’s no surprise that Bethesda Magazine voted it one of the best dishes of 2014.
Our favorite cured meat here is the Coppa, cut from the top of the shoulder right behind the head of the pig. It is sliced thin and marbled with fat that melts as soon as it touches the heat of your mouth.
We paired these dishes with a glass of the Southern Rhone blend of granache, carignan and syrah, which stood up well to the strong flavors of the meat.
*Denizens Brewing Company
This was not part of our original crawl, but with Piratz Tavern out of the picture this would be a good time to visit Denizens Brewing Co. for a beer. Just follow Georgia Ave under the Metro track bridge to the intersection with East West Highway.
*Jackie’s Restaurant and Sidebar permanently closed as of March 30, 2016.
We crossed the street and continued three blocks south down Georgia Ave to Jackie’s Sidebar. Co-owners Jackie Greenbaum and Patrick Higgins opened Jackie’s Restaurant in 2004 in a converted auto parts garage. This is also the building where The Maryland News newspaper was printed from 1928 until 1953. The décor is 60’s industrial chic with exposed brick walls and mid-century furnishings accented by colorful vintage fabrics. The fun, award-winning design carries over to the adjacent cocktail lounge, Sidebar, which they added in 2010.
Jackie’s led the way in bringing seasonal farm to table cuisine to Silver Spring and is consistently rated as one of the top restaurants in DC. You should definitely have dinner there sometime, but since we were only making a quick stop, we pulled up to Sidebar for a cocktail.
Jackie’s was also the first to bring craft cocktails to Silver Spring with Sidebar. They use premium liquors and house-made infusions for their inventive creations. The Quack-Quack-erac is a unique twist on the sazerac with duck fat infused St. Germain. For something with a bit more kick, the Happy Ending is a lovely mix of gin, raspberry and lime muddled with jalapeno and topped with a bruised basil leaf. It may be pink but it packs a spicy punch. Most cocktails on the list are only $6 during Happy Hour (M-Sat, 5-7pm), which is a great deal for a well crafted cocktail. They also serve a bar menu of small plates from Jackie’s kitchen. A plate of truffled cheese fries would be a good idea to absorb some of the alcohol from these powerfully strong drinks. Note that Sidebar is closed on Sundays, but Jackie’s also has a bar that is open at 5:30pm. The two restaurants are connected, but they have completely different menus and drink lists.
Fire Station 1 Restaurant
Heading north, a few blocks back up Georgia Avenue, the Fire Station 1 Restaurant holds a prominent position on the street. Fire Station 1 has a typical sports bar atmosphere with two bars and lots of TV’s, but take a moment to look around at the spectacular architecture of the building and you realize that you are in a 100 year old firehouse. This is actually the 1915 Silver Spring Fire Department building. Owner Jeremy Gruber is a retired Montgomery County Fire and Rescue captain who worked at the Silver Spring station. He purchased the building and opened Fire Station 1 Restaurant and Brewing Co. in 2010.
The menu is family friendly and predictable sports bar fare. However, we recommend their unique Lobster BLT, which we split because it is so incredibly rich. The lobster meat is sautéed in butter, garlic and white wine, and served on hearty multigrain toast along with the requisite BLT. I recall that the first words out of my mouth when I took a bite of this sandwich were: “This is one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had!” Now maybe I was just really hungry, because I’ve had some amazing sandwiches, but at that moment, I swear it was true.
They have 12 beers on tap, some of them local, including their own Daily Crisis IPA and Something Red. The sign out front says Brewery, but their beers are actually brewed offsite for them by Red Brick Station in White Marsh MD.
Fire Station 1 is not high-end cuisine, but every neighborhood can use a casual spot where you can grab a beer and watch a few games. Here is one that is not part of a chain and saved a historic building in the process.
Quarry House Tavern
*Currently closed at this location due to fire damage. The Quarry House has temporarily taken over the former Piratz Tavern space directly across the street as Quarry House Temporary.
Speaking of historic, our next stop may not be that old but it holds a special place in the hearts of Silver Spring locals, both young and old. The Quarry House Tavern, or QH to locals, has been around since 1937. Talk to anyone at the bar and there is a good chance that they have been coming here for most of their lives. Jim Brown was a regular before he purchased the Quarry House in 1975 and he oversaw it for 30 years before selling in 2005 to Jackie Greenbaum and Patrick Higgins of Jackie’s. They jumped at the chance to save the Quarry House and made some upgrades while preserving the character that so many loved.
There is no sign indicating it’s location, you just have to know where it is. On the Northeast corner of Georgia and Bonifant, there is a dark staircase unmarked except for a discreet flag marked with QH. Yes, it’s down there in the basement of the Indian restaurant.
If you still have room in your stomach for more potato products, the tater tots are worthy of a try. We like ours loaded with bacon, cheese and Old Bay. The really special thing about the Quarry House is the beer and whiskey. There are 8 rotating draft craft beers that change daily and are only $4 during happy hour every day from 5-7pm. I haven’t counted, but they also claim nearly 300 bottled beers and 300 whiskeys from around the world. I like a rich chocolaty dessert beer and went with the Caldera Mogli Oak Aged Imperial Porter, a 22 oz bottle that’s good to share, while my husband preferred a Highland Scotch from Oban.
Quarry House also has free live music every Saturday evening from 9:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., hosting an eclectic mix of Rockabilly, Roots rock, and Garage bands. The atmosphere here is dark, dank, and very comfortable. With no windows and no natural light, it’s easy to loose track of time here. Maybe that’s why this is usually our last stop.
AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center
You could just go home now and call it a day well spent, or you could spend the evening digesting with a movie at the AFI Silver Theatre. The historic Silver Theatre was built in 1938 and was saved by the community at the last minute while demolition was underway in 1984. The American Film Institute moved from the Kennedy Center into the restored space in 2003.
The theatre shows anything from silent films with live musical accompaniment to current film releases. In addition to the usual theatre treats, the café bar serves up a decent selection of beer and wine by the glass, which you can take to your seat to enjoy during the show. We were lucky enough to be there during a Harold Ramis tribute month. Caddyshack on the big screen with a glass of wine was an unexpected treat and a great way to end a long day of exploring Silver Spring.