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A new crop of restaurants in gas stations, like Seoul Food D.C., will help suburbs grow into more authentic urban places.

It's 1 p.m. on a Tuesday, and I'm at Seoul Food D.C., eating a kimchi-bacon rice bowl as I watch cars whoosh down a six-lane road. I'm fighting the urge to finish my lunch with one of the pumpkin whoopie pies next to the cash register—instead, I settle for a pack of gum, sold in the Tiger Mart a few steps away.

Tiger Mart, you may recall, is Exxon's convenience-store brand. Yes, this Korean-fusion café operates out of a gas station. Anna and Jon Goree launched Seoul Food in a food truck in nearby Arlington, Virginia, in 2011. After building a devoted following for their caramelized kimchi and bibimbap, the couple decided to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

They learned of the space in the Exxon when they got a call from its new owner, an acquaintance who was unsure what to do with his extra square footage. The Gorees liked the space and the location, and in early 2013, they signed a three-year lease.  

The lunch rush at Seoul Food (Amanda Kolson Hurley)

The arrangement is great for everyone involved. The gas-station owner gets help with overhead costs, the Gorees get a cheap space with guaranteed foot traffic, and customers get to eat delicious food in a surprisingly pleasant environment (a little vase of fresh mums brightens my table, while Mexican-style paper flags warm up the fluorescent lights and give the place a hippie-ish vibe).

But there's one more beneficiary of this gas station-restaurant pairing: the urban realm. Or to be more precise, the suburban realm.

Seoul Food is in Wheaton, Maryland, an unassuming suburb about 10 miles from downtown Washington. There are close to 127,000 gas stations with convenience stores in the United States, and many of them are located in communities like Wheaton. Land here is cheaper than in urban centers—where gas stations are starting to disappear—and most suburbanites drive, whether out of necessity or choice. The result is that in a lot of suburbs, the landscape is (poorly) defined by the interchangeable, primary-color canopies of Shell and Valero and Texaco.

Gas stations serve a purpose, and place-making is assuredly not it. Most stations sit at the back of their lots, behind pumps and a swathe of paving; the front of the site is basically an extension of the road. It's a tenet of urban design that buildings should "meet the street" and create a continuous street wall for framing public space and making it safer and more enjoyable to walk. By contrast, there's an intersection in my own suburban neighborhood where cars tear through the corner gas station to avoid red lights.

We might shrug and say: That's suburbia. But suburbia is changing. Older, inner-ring suburbs like Wheaton are morphing into satellite cities. Gas stations here, too, are being snapped up for redevelopment. Many of them will remain—Wheaton is not going to look like Greenwich Village any time soon—but as roads evolve into streets and the urban fabric fills in, they need to adapt.

Anna and Jon Goree (Amanda Kolson Hurley)

And that's where the gas-station restaurant comes in. It lets locals experience this corner not as a handy service site, but as an actual place. Businesses like Seoul Food take something utterly generic—the corporate, hyper-branded gas station—and individualize it. ("Gas stations are all the same, anywhere; we make it unique," Jon Goree says.) They encourage customers to behave as if they're in the city, to people-watch, even to walk (both the times I've visited Seoul Food, I've had to park a block or so away, and walked up a street I'd only driven on before). That's in addition to the more obvious benefits, like increased economic activity and another affordable dining option for the community.

The Exxon where Seoul Food resides is unusual, because it straddles a triangular corner site and comes right up to the sidewalk of a main road, University Boulevard. Anna Goree says that having a front door on University was a condition of them moving into the space. They wanted to embrace the street, unlike the previous tenant, another food business that had faced inward.

As a result, the Gorees now count Montgomery County planners among their most enthusiastic customers, and not just for the kimchi. The planners regard Seoul Food, with its chalkboard menu and café tables on the sidewalk, as a model of what Wheaton can become.

Adding a corner store allows gas stations to embrace the street.
(Galina Tachieva)

In her book Sprawl Repair Manual, the urban designer Galina Tachieva proposes a scheme for a retrofitted gas station. It looks like a bigger, more formal version of the Exxon-Seoul Food hybrid. Gas-station dining is taking off in greater D.C., as the Washington Post reported last year. If it becomes entrenched, perhaps more station owners will build the "liner" additions that Tachieva recommends. A huge amount of suburban real estate could be improved, incrementally, this way.

It helps that the industry is also moving in this direction. As margins on fuel sales narrow, food service at stations is a growth area, according to NACS, the National Association of Convenience Stores.

But maybe it's more realistic to see gas-station restaurants as provisional, short-term partnerships—and that's okay, too. The Gorees have done well at the Exxon. Although they could have expanded by now, they're sticklers for quality, and keeping Seoul Food small means they can ensure everything meets their standards.

One day, Jon Goree concedes, they'll move out, probably into a regular restaurant nearby. After all, they don't want to be in a gas station forever.

Correction: This article originally misspelled Jon Goree's name and has been updated.

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