Wednesday, March 7, 2007

It’s ‘Outta the Way’ for New York native

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Chip Berman co-owns the Outta the Way Café, an old-style independent restaurant in Derwood.
17503 Redland Road, Derwood

301-963-6895, fax: 301-963-9858

Credit cards: MC, Visa

By age 15, Chip Berman, co-owner of Outta the Way Café in Derwood, knew he wanted to work in a saloon.

The native of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen was 5 when his parents were killed in a plane crash. His paternal grandmother, a Manhattan socialite, raised him and his brother. She took the boys out to eat regularly, introducing them to local hot spots.

‘‘She expected her boys to wear a jacket and tie,” Berman says. ‘‘When you’re raised like that, how can you not love the restaurant business?”

The city’s saloons proved a fertile learning ground for a would-be restaurateur. But Berman had to leave New York to find his way to his own café.

Berman fell in love with D.C. while attending Georgetown University. In his early 20s, he went west, tending bar in Aspen, and off-season, in California, which he found ‘‘too different for a New York guy.” He headed back to Colorado and worked as a cowboy.

When he returned to the East Coast in the late 1970s, Berman chose Washington.

‘‘New York was going through bankruptcy and was pretty depressing,” Berman explains.

For nearly a decade, Berman worked, invested and saved toward opening a restaurant. While mountain climbing in Utah in 1987, his broker informed him that the stock market had crashed. He recalls being tempted — briefly — to go right over the side of the mountain.

‘‘I was no longer in a position to buy a place in D.C.,” Berman says.

Instead, he and several partners began looking for a more affordable site. In 1989, when he first walked through the door of the Derwood bar that would become Outta the Way, he says he ‘‘just knew this was the place.”

The partners decorated the restaurant with artwork from their homes.

‘‘It’s a pretty eclectic collection,” Berman says, pointing out the black and white photos of the desert taken by his professional photographer brother Michael, based in Silver City, N.M.

‘‘To encourage family conversation,” Berman notes, Outta the Way tends to seat families near the most thought-provoking art.

In mid-restaurant, where live bands play on weekends and open mic is held on Thursdays, decades-old album covers appeal to a baby boomer crowd. And the far end of the bar features a ‘‘wall of shame,” Berman jokes, with photos of customers.

‘‘People come in and go to the spot to make sure their picture is still there,” Berman says.

Customers also come to the bar during football season to cheer on the Pittsburgh Steelers.

‘‘We’re still in mourning,” Berman admits.

Outta the Way tries to live up to its reputation as an old-style independent restaurant. When they’re not taking orders for chicken wings — the restaurant serves eight varieties — waiters can be found chatting with customers.

Berman and his family moved to Derwood about six years ago, and now live less than a mile from the restaurant. He says he loves the area’s small-town feel.

Created as a low-density corridor between Rockville and Gaithersburg, Berman says, the town was home to generations of parents and their children. But because of rapidly climbing real estate values, many families have been displaced.

Customers are moving to places with a lower cost of living, he adds, but many ‘‘still drive up for Thursday night Open Mic or to see everybody.”

While the restaurant business is complex, Berman doesn’t agree with those who call it hard work.

‘‘If you’re gabby like me, you get a chance to talk to so many interesting people,” he says. ‘‘At the end of somebody’s rough day, we get to make people happy.”

And if there’s any residual resentment about leaving the big city for an out of the way spot in the suburbs, you’d be hard pressed to find it beneath Berman’s effusive exterior. To hear him tell it, he’s living the dream.

‘‘Everyday I get to go to work in a bar,” he says. ‘‘How cool is that?”