Bethesda boasts a wealthy population that draws upscale retailers from around the country, a praiseworthy collection of restaurants and an unmistakable surge of new residential development that makes it Montgomery County’s crown urban jewel.

But to many, Bethesda is still the sleepy suburban town that empties out sometime before 10 p.m., paling in comparison to the burgeoning nightlife scene in neighboring Washington D.C. and lagging behind competitor Arlington, where young people flock to bars and late-night eateries.

“I want you to know when I first used [the word hip] in talking about Montgomery County, people said, ‘I’m sorry, that’s not part of our lexicon,'” County Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac) said at a recent happy hour celebrating development in White Flint.

The event was entitled “Can we make the suburbs hip?”

It’s a question officials are now grappling with. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and Berliner’s County Council colleague Hans Riemer (D-At large) are in the beginning stages of creating a “night-time economy initiative,” according to a Leggett spokesman.

That push might help attract the type of young professional residents that cities and local governments crave. They fill transit-oriented apartment complexes, pay taxes while demanding relatively few government services and might theoretically remain in the area if they decide to start a family.

It’s apparent, though, Montgomery has a difficult reputation to overcome.

“It’s still not necessarily a true nightlife scene,” said Brandon Yu, a county native who last year co-founded a late-night shuttle service that transports bar-goers between locations in Bethesda, Dupont Circle and Georgetown. “There are plenty of bars. There are definitely individuals who go out. But I don’t think it will grow to a point of D.C. or an Arlington. It’s stable, but there are things that really inhibit what a nightlife establishment in Bethesda can do.”

“The demographics and the lifestyles of society are changing, so therefore you have to adapt,” said Jim Peters, president of the California-based Responsible Hospitality Institute. “The timeframe of life is changing. You see more of an extended late night social life than you have in the past.”

His organization advocates for measures to enhance night-time economies and in 2011 partnered with the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington and the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control for an area-wide study of nightlife trends.

“These are the patterns that are driving what we call the other 9 to 5 lifestyle, but services that support the local economy are still often driven by a daytime schedule,” Peters said. “A city or a county like Montgomery needs to recognize that in order to compete for the sustainable lifestyle of professionals that you want to draw to your area to live or work, you have to invest in a night-time economy.”

That might mean adjusting bus schedules, trash pick-up times or ensuring a heftier police presence in busy areas, Peters said. The goal is to create a “social continuum” that extends beyond the traditional drive to a restaurant immediately followed by the drive home.

“The difference with an urban area or a downtown is we might say, ‘Hey, let’s meet on U Street. We’ll get off the Metro and then we’ll decide on a concert. We’ll bump into a friend of ours and we’ll go out to eat first,'” Peters said. “Then they’ll go for drinks and never have to get in a car. That’s the type of social experience people are looking for in cities.”

Yu said he hears from bar owners who say one of the chief obstacles holding Bethesda back is the county’s strict alcohol regulations.

All Class B and H alcohol licensed establishments in Montgomery must have food for sale during all hours in which alcohol is for sale, and standard bar peanuts don’t qualify. The county’s Department of Liquor Control conducts monthly inspections of bars in the first year of operation to ensure food sales are at least equal to alcohol sales.

That’s a far cry from bars in D.C. that can more easily cater to a late night crowd. Many don’t offer food at all.

“I think people still view Bethesda as a restaurant area for fine dining,” Yu said. “It’s not necessarily the young crowds that are coming. It’s geared toward middle-aged people in their 30s or 40s coming out for a nice date night.”

In the Bethesda Urban Partnership’s 11-minute promotional video, the county-funded nonprofit charged with maintaining and marketing downtown Bethesda focuses on the area’s walkability, retail shops, transportation options and especially its more than 200 restaurants.

Business owners praise the town for its abundance of lunchtime and after-work dining options. BUP and other officials cite its art studios and theaters as examples of Bethesda’s vibrant arts and entertainment district.

Some say what’s missing is an emphasis on places that offer nightlife, a list that is growing despite the area’s reputation.

In the last few months on Cordell Avenue, a lounge opened in the former space of an Italian restaurant most famous for hosting Bar Mitzvah receptions. A bar from the owners of an Adams Morgan favorite will officially debut tomorrow and a two-story rooftop bar and restaurant from the owner of Bethesda’s Tommy Joe’s is under construction.

Brian Vasile, a co-owner of Grand Central in Adams Morgan, said the wealth of new apartment projects in Bethesda was one factor that attracted him to the so-called cursed location at 4866 Cordell Ave. Vasile and his partners will host the grand opening of Brickside Food & Drink tomorrow night.

“The bottom line is it’s thousands of more people coming into the area. If you’re a business person, then that’s gotta be great news, that all these people are coming,” Vasile said in November. “And they’re probably young, urban professionals who like to dine out at good places. Hopefully we can be one of those places.”

County officials seem increasingly hopeful that ventures such as Vasile’s work out.

At the White Flint happy hour, Berliner addressed an audience made up of older residents, staff from development companies, young families and some who have yet to establish families.

“I do want you to know,” Berliner said, “that Montgomery County’s future in my judgement does in large part depend on being able to attract this kind of crowd, a young, energetic crowd.”

Flickr pool photo by AmyMarieMoore