Back in the day: Teasing the city’s taste buds over time
By Renee Domogauer
When it comes to College Park’s restaurants, the only constant is change.
There was a time when my family and I chose to drive to New Jersey to get a slice of pizza that spoke to our taste buds. Oh, there was pizza here in College Park, lots of it, but it was college pizza. Pizza served in mega-slices, oozing oil and washed down with large quantities of cheap beer.
Ratsies, the beloved source of late-night pizza for some 30 years, was at the corner of Rte. 1 and Knox Road. One of the first pizza joints in town, it was your proverbial college hangout, its walls covered with aging university memorabilia, its floor less than pristine, its tables well-worn. Ratsies’ predictable fare fed generations of students who gathered with friends to root for UMD teams. Time, along with the influx of eateries, took its toll on Ratsies, which closed in 2015. Nando’s Peri Peri now stands in its place.
The pizza scene changed when Ledo Pizza moved from Adelphi to College Park in 2010.
Then came Slices in 2013, which offered what its owners, the Di Benedetto brothers, called “from scratch, gourmet-style” pizza. Their New York(ish) style pizza offered lots of choices, with the mushroom truffle toppings serving as evidence of the brothers’ high ambitions. I once asked a neighbor of mine, a UMD student, how he’d like to be paid for some work he did for me; he asked for a gift card to Slices, declaring their pizza the best in College Park. After only 6 years in business, Slices closed in 2019.
While College Park’s pizza and beer scene has always prevailed, the city’s seen alternatives come — and also go. Even our beloved Ledo changed management when Tommy Marcos Jr. sold it back to franchise ownership in 2020.
Jerry Guiterrez brought his mom’s Southern California-style Mexican recipes to College Park in 1990. His 16-seat Taco Fiesta, in the Campus Village Shoppes, just north of campus, had a tiny open-to-view kitchen where Guiterrez prepared made-to-order dishes from authentic, fresh ingredients. Think fish tacos, quesadillas, Mexican beer and even a salsa bar.
Guiterrez left College Park in 2002 to open a new eatery in Baltimore, but College Park didn’t leave him. When asked about his memories of his days here, he immediately talked about his loyal customers: “No day goes by without someone from the College Park location stopping by, not one day!”
I was driving north on Route 1 one day, back in 2000, when a sign signaling Burmese food caught my eye. Hold on, I thought; isn’t that hole-in-the-wall University Donuts? Yes, as a bit of investigating proved, it was. In the shop’s early days, workers turned out donuts in the morning, and then the magic began: Hla Hum, the owner’s mom, began to cook, turning out exotic, delicious meals unlike anything we had ever before seen in College Park. Dishes like pork in mango pickle, shrimp in sour mustard and mouth-watering ginger salad. The shop soon abandoned its namesake donuts to focus on mom’s wonderful cooking and renamed themselves Mandalay. After keeping the city well fed for about a decade, Mandalay relocated to Silver Spring.
Calvert House Inn, in Hyattsville, provided atmosphere and decent food a step (or several) up from pizza and beer. Opening in 1963, the restaurant was best described as old-fashioned, with its tablecloths and weekend musicians, along with chef-prepared steak and seafood. A 2013 Washington Post article described the inn as a “timeless reminder of an earlier dining culture.” After 51 years in business, the inn closed in 2014. The end of an era.
Plato’s Diner opened in 1994 at the corner of Route 1 and Guilford Road and quickly became the place to meet and greet in College Park. County Councilman Eric Olson (District 3), who held many career gatherings at Plato’s, declared, “If you want to see anyone in College Park, you come here.” My very dear, now deceased friend Dora Kennedy often held court in a corner booth, with long conversations about the city’s many challenges, while her husband, Ed, battled with his cronies at a booth across the room. That’s the kind of place it was. Plato’s closed in 2016, after a fire, and was demolished in 2019 to make way for the Aster apartment complex.
Bagel Place offered up freshly baked bagels and speedy service, along with a friendly vibe, for some 40 years before abruptly closing in November 2021, after extensive lease negotiations with the landlord. Bagel Place was a staple of the community: Family owned and community-minded, the popular eatery could always be counted on to generously support local projects. And the community did its best to give back; when Bagel Place announced that it was closing, locals created a GoFundMe campaign and raised $46,000 to help keep them afloat. UMD students Emma Kelley and Peter North-Hoy, who were regulars at Bagel Place, were so saddened by the loss of their very favorite eatery that they framed the bill from their last meal there.
We’ve been lucky to have good food options here in College Park, but we’ve rarely been able to retain those quality establishments that we loved. The restaurant industry is known for fluctuations, and our city is experiencing growth and evolution. With new restaurants like Taqueria Habanero and College Park Grill planting roots here, I’m sure many residents are happy. We should welcome them with open arms and eager forks; let’s hope they are signs of even more delicious days to come.