The voters have spoken and Maryland’s best new restaurant is right here in La Plata.
The Charles, which opened last fall in the space formerly occupied by local icon Casey Jones, found itself listed among the competitors for the honor earlier this year as part of an annual awards program put on by the Restaurant Association of Maryland. Earlier in May, at the association’s gala, The Charles was recognized as the winner. The farm-to-table restaurant, operated by Washington-based EatWell DC, was the only nominee from Southern Maryland.
General manager Mark Barry said the company’s decision to open a restaurant in Charles County came fairly easily. They’d been operating the 13-acre EatWell Natural Farm in town since 2011, just a short distance from the restaurant’s location along Charles Street on Glen Albin Road. That provided “a good home base” for them to build from, Barry said.
Earning the honor from RAM, Barry said, was “a real opportunity” to make a mark, having been open less than a year. The win, he said, “shows us we have our best foot forward and we’re on the right track.”
“It’s a huge honor and something we want to live up to every day,” Barry said. “We want to be the best restaurant, period, in this area.”
Barry said he thinks the restaurant brings the best of the parent company’s other concepts, as well as their experience, and combines it with Southern Maryland flair. There’s a need for independent restaurants, he said, and that “personalized experience” is an important offering.
In addition to the EatWell Natural Farm, the restaurant also uses some of the meat raised at Hancock Family Farms in La Plata. They’re able to regularly bring in fresh produce, Barry said, and they’ve got a personal relationship with the farmer. Barry said community involvement is important to them, too. “We want to make sure we’re an active citizen in the community as well,” he said.
They kept much of the staff from Casey Jones, Barry said, and “wanted to take what they had and the culture of the town, and bring what we do here.”
Diners can expect a new menu as the weather gets warmer, Barry said. A menu that’s “seasonal and interesting” is important, and a “full overhaul” of the current menu is just around the corner, including a “delicious” watermelon salad with pickled strawberries, the corn-like grain sorghum, feta, balsamic vinegar and arugula.
So far, Barry said, he feels the restaurant’s experience has been “great.” On a personal note, he said La Plata reminds him of his own hometown of Albany, Ore.: full of welcoming people, and “close to a large city, but with a small-town vibe.”
“The people have been so excited to have us here and see us be a success,” Barry said. “It’s something to strive for.”
Officials from the county feel the restaurant is off to a promising start, too. Martin Proulx, the agriculture business development manager for the county’s Department of Economic Development, called The Charles “an economic driver for local agriculture.
“The menu reflects the season, so it shows what’s coming from the ground locally,” Proulx said. “A farm-to-table ties in the destination tourism side as well. It’s a great economic driver.”
The closure of a beloved restaurant like Casey Jones “could have created a void,” redevelopment manager Taylor Yewell said. Instead, the opposite has happened.
“In my experience, restaurant spaces are hard to fill,” Yewell said. “The landscape of small towns in America is full of vacant restaurant space right now. To have this potentially iconic restaurant come along and fill that space and be as successful as they are in a short period of time is really good for La Plata and the county. Otherwise you’d have an ugly, vacant space … but they didn’t run into that. La Plata is a vibrant enough place and a suitable environment for that type of establishment.”