This post by RCA
President Colin Mills originally appeared in Reston Patch.
As faithful readers of Patch know, the longtime restaurant
stalwart Lakeside
is closing its doors after over 20 years in business.  This has generated a surprising (to me)
amount of commentary, both positive and negative.  Fans of the Lakeside lament the loss of a
great neighborhood watering hole where the regulars felt a real sense of community;
detractors claim that the food was mediocre and the décor was outdated, and
whatever comes next can only be an improvement.
I can’t comment on that debate one way or the other; I didn’t
go to the Lakeside Inn.  But I do lament
the loss of a truly local restaurant, and I hope that we can do more to
encourage the location of locally-owned small businesses in Reston.  We often talk about how Reston is a special
and unique place, and independent businesses do a lot to contribute to that
sense of place.
I tend to look at the small business issue through the lens
of restaurants, because I love to eat. 
Reston has a reputation as the land of chain eateries.  This reputation isn’t entirely fair, as we do
have several great independent restaurants (my favorites include Ariake, Pollo Peru, and El Manantial).  But it’s undeniable that there are a lot of
chains in Reston, especially in and around the Town Center.
There’s nothing inherently evil about chain restaurants:
they tend to be fast, affordable, and reliable. 
But if your restaurant scene is dominated by the same chains that can be
found in thousands of suburbs all across the country, it’s hard to feel a real
sense of place.  You could be in Anytown,
USA.  The Reston I know prides itself on
not being Anytown.
And it’s not just the chains themselves that create a sense
of sameness; there’s also an unfortunate lack of diversity in the restaurant options.  American, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and
Tex-Mex cuisines are all well-represented in Reston.  But we have a tremendously diverse population;
why don’t we have a wider variety of restaurants? 
Why don’t we have a German or Eastern European restaurant
here?  Why aren’t African or South
American cuisines better represented? 
Couldn’t we support a good Korean place? 
Our restaurant options don’t do justice to the wide variety of cultures
we have here.
Not only can restaurants express the diversity of a
community, they can also provide a place for the community to come
together.  Whether you liked the Lakeside
or not, there’s no denying that it was a great gathering place.  Neighbors rubbed elbows here, talked and
watched sports and enjoyed each other’s company in a friendly, relaxed
setting.  And in our increasingly
atomized society, we need places like that.
In the Master Plan Task Force meetings, Bob Simon regularly
stresses the importance of plazas, as they provide a place for community
members to gather, or just to pass each other and strike up unexpected
conversations.  Neighborhood bars and
restaurants serve the same function. 
They get us out of our cars and our self-created isolation chambers and
into contact with our fellow citizens. 
We need more of that in Reston.
One of the bigger barriers to having more independent
restaurants and small businesses in Reston, I suspect, is the relatively high
land values and corresponding high rents. 
It’s hard for a small restaurant or a niche shop to make money if they
have to pay sky-high lease rates. 
In recent months, we’ve seen several small businesses (such
as Lakeside and At Play Café) close up shop due to lease rates issues.  As the Silver Line arrives and redevelopment
gets underway, the cost of doing business will only get higher.  That’s only going to drive more small
businesses out of Reston, unless we plan carefully to avoid that fate.
What can we do?  The
best way to encourage small businesses is to set up a specific area or areas
where they are encourages.  A lot of
communities have a “Main Street” or “Old Town” area where the storefronts are
small and local businesses are encouraged. 
We don’t have an old-fashioned Main Street, but we do have
Lake Anne Plaza.  The shops on the Plaza
are all locally-owned small business.  I
don’t know if the same will be true with the redevelopment occurring around
Lake Anne, but I hope so; Lake Anne is an ideal location for small shops and
restaurants, and the new development will provide the foot traffic that will
help them survive and thrive.
If not Lake Anne, how about Tall
?  It’s already home to El
Manantial, Mama Wok, and Pho Reston 75, fine local establishments all.  If it were turned into a mecca for small
business (possibly with a redesigned layout to encourage pedestrians), that
might be what draws people back over there. 
The Lakeside Inn is going away, and we’re not going to be
able to bring it back.  But we must find
a way to encourage small businesses and restaurants to thrive in Reston.  They are crucial to creating a sense of uniqueness
and a sense of place, and they provide places for us to gather and commune with
each other.  Our community is growing and
growing up.  But it’s important to
maintain some places where, just like they said in “Cheers,” everybody knows
your name.

If you could bring in a new restaurant or small business to
Reston, what would it be?  Let me know in
the comments.