Opening a restaurant is stressful. Opening a restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic with a baby on the way is a whole other level of nerve-wracking.
“I told my husband I’m probably going to give birth in here, but I’m OK with it!” says Meron Bekele with a laugh. She co-owns the newly opened South House Garden at Granary Row in Gaithersburg with her husband, Lewis Asare.
“We literally signed the lease during COVID-19, and we were hoping for the best. And, a year later, here we are,” she says.
Luckily, father-to-be Asare knows what to expect — when it comes to restaurants, at least. While Bekele previously worked as a flight attendant, Asare owned and ran a small chain of Virginia eateries in Richmond, Norfolk and Hampton called Sweet Teas Southern Cuisine.
He eventually got tired of the industry and sold them all, but the entrepreneurial spirit is strong with this duo. They also flip houses, and Bekele maintains an online clothing store. When they came across a large bar space next to the train tracks in Olde Towne Gaithersburg, Asare felt the tug to try again.
“Initially, we wanted to start a children’s play gym,” says Bekele. “We were looking for spaces. We got a realtor, and we happened to come across this place.”
So, the couple pivoted, opening a beer garden instead. Draping flowers, arcade games and pool tables now fill the cavernous space, which can seat 500 but is currently set up for 100 guests because of COVID safety protocols, says Bekele. At the industrial-looking bar, with its Edison light bulbs and subway tiles, six of the 22 taps are reserved for local brews like DC Brau and a hard kombucha from Flying Embers.
Asare and Bekele are also planning a fun roster of nightly events, such as karaoke on Tuesdays, trivia night on Wednesdays and live music on Fridays. Outdoor “mommy and me” yoga will take place Sunday mornings on the patio, which will have outdoor seating and giant versions of Jenga and Connect 4. The goal, Bekele explains, is to create an atmosphere where everyone can have fun.
“If you’re single and have no kids, we want you to be able to enjoy yourself. We also want you to be able to come here and have fun if you do have children,” she says.
The Southern-meets-global food menu, accessed by scanning a table-specific QR code on your phone, is overseen by Chef Eric Cruz, who most recently cooked at Pinstripes at Pike & Rose in North Bethesda. He came on board after the opening menu was crafted, and while he’ll put his stamp on it, the general gist of the dishes will stay the same.
Some components, like the sweet Thai chili glaze for the expertly fried wings and accompanying ranch dip, are bought. But Cruz intends to push the kitchen toward making everything in-house.
“Eric is a chef that doesn’t like anything to be premade, prebreaded, prefried … none of that,” says Bekele. “Everything that he touches, he wants to be fresh.”
Sampled before the premade elements were to be swapped with kitchen-made ones, the sweet, sticky, slightly spicy wings ($12) were still absolutely worth ordering. As was the trio of lobster tacos ($18), despite the dubious addition of housemade candied bacon laced with a secret ingredient of allspice. Stuffed with plenty of lobster, housemade chipotle slaw, a hint of Old Bay and topped with bacon, it’s a combo that maybe shouldn’t work — but it does.
Trendy Jalisco-style birria tacos (three for $15) show up on the menu, too. Swapping in beef for goat and adding a side of not-so-traditional sour cream Americanizes the dish a bit, but the meat gains richness from being braised for four hours and served with its juices for the customary dip.
The gigantic Bavarian-style pretzel ($9), also not made by this kitchen, was nevertheless everything you want it to be: soft, supple and salty, flanked by ramekins of brown mustard and beer cheese. Sweet tooths will want to finish their meal with the generously sized “brookie” ($13), a playful layering of brownie and chocolate-chip cookie topped with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. We’ll be back to try the brick-oven pizzas ($18–$19) and eat our way through the extensive vegan menu, which features more than a dozen items.
“We wanted people who were vegan to have a lot of options. And there’s gluten-free options available as well, but it’s upon request,” says Bekele. “We want everybody to be able to come here.”
South House Garden, 317 E. Diamond Ave., Lower Level, Gaithersburg; 240-912-6395; thesouthhousegarden.com