Inside The Maryland Smokehouse, it feels like a summer evening.
The inside of the Route 1 restaurant — which opened Thursday on the ground floor of The Varsity — can make a customer forget about the chilly spring weather outside. Burnt yellow and red walls, black steel fences and a shuttered awning convey the feeling of a lazy afternoon at grandma’s, complete with the smoky smell of barbecue and the chatter of relaxed neighbors.
The restaurant, the only full-scale joint of its kind in College Park, strives to fill a culinary and cultural niche beloved by many Americans: down-home barbecue. Management praised the “bold, smoky” flavor of the meat, and students seemed to agree, resulting in more business in the smokehouse’s first week than initially expected.
“I walked in and I smelled the ribs — I was like, ‘Wow,’” said senior Allison Kuchar, eating with friends beneath a wall-sized photo of a cornfield.
“It’s relaxed food, but it’s really well made,” the behavioral and community health major said. “Like, I feel like I’m out at a cookout or summer party and someone slaps some pulled pork on a grill. But it’s really good — really good quality. It’s perfect for summer, too.”
Since the restaurant opened, about 300 customers a day have passed through its doors, said owner Chris George.
It’s open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 9 p.m., George said.
The amount of business so far is stunning, George said, because he hasn’t advertised the restaurant yet.
George, who is originally from Memphis, Tenn., decided to open his barbecue restaurant in College Park to bring some Tennessee flavor to a population he thought would appreciate it: college students.
“Kids are pretty much from every different place, so we wanted to make people feel at home when they get here,” said manager Joel Belton. “’Cause it’s barbecue, you know! Barbecue always makes everyone happy.”
Freshman environmental science and policy major Allie Bredder was walking by when she noticed the new restaurant and decided to stop in.
“[We came] just because it was different from everything we have here,” Bredder said.
That was the goal: to bring a different flavor to College Park, Belton said, one with variety and based on authentic Memphis recipes. The pulled pork, chicken, brisket and other meats are smoked overnight in a smoker in the back, so customers can actually taste the smoke in the meat, Belton said.
The unique sweet and spicy barbecue sauce, which comes with most of the food, is made fresh every day. And the restaurant tries to appeal to a variety of tastes, serving a wide selection of options including catfish, pulled pork, chicken, barbecue burgers, ribs, wings, a hot wing sausage and even a Portobello mushroom sandwich.
“You don’t have to feel as though you’re stuck getting one thing,” Belton said. “We just wanted to make sure we gave you options so we didn’t restrict you to just a burger or just a hot dog.”
Laughing with her friends as she took her last bites of her pulled pork sandwich, Kuchar said the food was “really, really good,” comparable to smoked ribs cooked over an open fire. The crispy fries were especially delicious, she said.
Prices were reasonable for the large portion sizes, Kuchar added. Appetizers cost between $6 and $10.50, sandwiches range from $6 to $8 and sides cost $3 each. However, some entrees, such as the barbecue ribs and chicken and pork or brisket combos, cost almost $20.
But these entrees also come with two sides and hushpuppies, and the portions are enough for two customers to share, Belton said.
“It’s definitely the quality of food you get for the quantity,” Belton said. “Once you actually taste the food, you may even think you’re paying a little less than you’re supposed to. The food is amazing.”
Sitting on a red stool, Belton laughed when asked about his favorite item on the menu.
“Oh, the ribs, hands down,” he said enthusiastically.
But he promised customers would love every item the restaurant offers. So far, ribs and pulled pork have been most the popular, but the entire menu is “pretty doggone good,” George said.
Though The Maryland Smokehouse may be the only barbecue restaurant in the city, it’s not the only place students and city residents can get their ribs or smoked meat fix.
From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays at the College Park Farmers Market, city resident Bill Coleman doles out large servings of his “backyard barbecue”: ribs, pulled pork, chicken, corned beef or brisket with two sides for $6.
“When I started here three years ago, it was mainly just the Millers selling homemade bread,” Coleman said, wearing a Bill’s Backyard Barbecue apron. “I got to talking to them and said, ‘I’ll do barbecue, get the smoke in the air, get me in business.’”
Known as “Barbecue Bill,” Coleman’s built up a strong following of students and neighbors, especially over the past year.
“Last year when [the students] came back, it just blew up,” Coleman said. “The first week I had a two-hour line with 20 people deep, which caught me by surprise. I was like, ‘Holy crap.’ … And the next week I got more, and the next week even more people.”
This past weekend, Coleman sold out of food in two hours. On Sunday, he sold out by 1 p.m.
But he isn’t worried about competition from The Maryland Smokehouse. In fact, he’s excited about it.
“Let’s be honest, look what we have here: pizza or subs,” Coleman said. “I think a barbecue place downtown would be great. I mean, who doesn’t like barbecue? It’s a comfort food for people.”
It’s a “whole different ballgame” near The Varsity than in Old Town, Coleman said. For instance, most of Coleman’s customers live in the neighborhood surrounding the market’s location in the City Hall parking lot, such as students living in fraternity and sorority houses — a different crowd from the View and Varsity residents who might frequent George’s restaurant.
If he can find a place that isn’t too expensive, Coleman’s considering opening a barbecue restaurant himself.
“I’ve always said I’d never own a restaurant — you end up being married to it, and I’ve already got a wife, you know?” he said, laughing.
But he’s come to love selling barbecue, and Coleman added owning a restaurant is becoming a serious possibility.
At about 6:30 p.m. on opening day at The Maryland Smokehouse, groups of students hungry for barbecue chattered around small tables under decorative star-shaped lights. Even former football player A.J. Francis tweeted that he might make an appearance.
“I’ll need those coordinates,” Francis wrote, responding to a tweet about the smokehouse. “I’ll be there this week lol,” he tweeted.
Like the culture of the food he serves, George’s attitude toward his restaurant takes a carefree, take-it-as-it-comes outlook.
“It’s kind of a laid-back, very causal, come, sit back, eat a lot of good food and get really full and somewhat lazy. … And just kind of relax,” George said.
In the true spirit of a late summer afternoon, George just wants to focus on the present.
“We just want to put out a great, consistent product every day,” he said. “Each and every day the product has been getting better. Within the next few days, we think we’ll have a product that’s consistently knocking people’s socks off.”