- Bethesda's Cosi opened its window last week. It won't be able to do that come spring. (Photo: TBD Staff)
Like dining in restaurants with open, screen-less windows? You'll soon be out of luck in Montgomery County.
It seems the county's restaurants and officials have only recently become aware of a regulation against open windows in restaurants, one that has long been a part of Maryland law. The rule is designed to prevent vermin infestation.
Enforcement of the rule will likely begin in earnest next spring, when nice weather will be accompanied by the next round of health inspections. Restaurant owners can either screen their windows or close them altogether, creating a visible cultural shift in Bethesda's dining scene, where 25 of the county's nearly 40 multi-windowed restaurants operate.
How did everyone become aware of this rule? A health inspector came by the American Tap Room in Bethesda this summer to complete its final inspection before the restaurant opened, and noticed its many wide windows opening onto Woodmont Avenue. He noted this was against state law, and since the county has to enforce state law, the restaurant had to put up screens in its windows, much to the chagrin of management (one manager said of the rule, "oh, we hate it."). But the restaurant is the only in Bethesda to have screened its windows thus far.
- American Tap Room has screened windows. (Photo: TBD Staff)
"It was a big surprise for everyone," says Ken Hartman, director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center.
Most restaurants have responded by shutting their windows altogether, although you can still spot some that have brazenly opened their windows on nice days. Hartman said it's not necessary to call in such violations as he's currently focused on educating the business community on the rule, although it's obvious that some restaurant managers are a little miffed by others who aren't complying.
Recently opened Taylor Gourmet Deli was cited by a few such restaurant managers for keeping its garage-style door wide open, but the restaurant on Woodmont Avenue appears to have come into compliance in recent weeks. Manager Luis Fermia says he knows of the rule and the garage door has been shut for about a month.
- Taylor Gourmet in Bethesda now keeps its Elm Street garage door closed. (Photo: TBD Staff)
"It's pretty disappointing," he says. "Customers ask to open it, but we have to turn them down."
The garage door is a prominent design feature at both Taylor's Bethesda and two D.C. locations. The doors remain open in D.C., but no longer in Bethesda.
Ri Ra Irish Pub manager Leonie Cobb says she's also had to turn down customers asking to open the windows, and she is bracing for a higher-than-usual electricity bill as she can't rely on the breeze to keep the restaurant cool.
County Health Officer Ulder Tillman testified at a Montgomery County Council hearing last week, saying that the county is working with the restaurant community but that "this really isn’t a light matter." Violating the rule for one day could technically cost a restaurant $1,000 or 90 days in jail.
- Windows all along a restaurant’s front wall are common in Bethesda. (Photo: TBD Staff)
Even though county councilmembers want some kind of change in the law (Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) said at the hearing that "I know this will not shock you, but I have heard from my Bethesda restaurant folks saying 'OMG, are you kidding me?’"), changing the state law won't be easy. The rule is actually based on a Food and Drug Administration regulation.
"For you and I, for the rest of the world, this may not be a big deal, but for some reason it's in the state regulation, and the county executive is committed to working with the business community to see if there's a way we can change this through legislation," Hartman says.