Always, there were those lovely old country estates and gracious manor taverns with roaring fireplaces, but in the old days fine dining was associated with the city. Not so anymore. Now, there are more compelling reasons than ever for diners to cross county lines for a good meal.
The 50 best county restaurants in Howard County, Anne Arundel County and Baltimore County is a mix of the old and the new, destinations for special occasions and joints for Monday night suppers, the chef-driven and crowd-pleasing.
What made the list? The consistent, the conscientious, the creative and, sometimes, the cool.
Don't see your favorite? Leave a comment below.
Here are numbers 50-1:
50. Edo Sushi
53 East Padonia Road, Timonium, 410-667-9200
The first Edo Sushi opened in Timonium in 1997 and reinvigorated Baltimore County's strip-center sushi scene, earning high marks for the quality and presentation of its sushi and for the kitchen's casseroles and hot pots, too. All of that remains, and there are now three more Edos to serve you.
49. Mia Carolina
4844 Butler Road, Glyndon, 410-526-5711
Sauces from scratch and fresh-baked breads have helped chef-owner Jay Cohen win over the North Baltimore County crowd. So has the dining room, which appeals to both the white-tablecloth clientele and the trattoria crowd.
8171 Maple Lawn Blvd., Fulton, 301-498-9666
The tapas restaurant and gathering spot has survived the other early tenants of the Maple Lawn development. If the suburban-contemporary setting is a bit cold, such consistently performing dishes like the frito mixto, lamb chops and tuna tartare warm it up considerably.
47. Severn Inn
1993 Baltimore Annapolis Blvd., Annapolis, 410-349-4000
The quality of the cuisine has tended to ebb and flow over the years at this waterside restaurant. At its best, the restaurant comes close to the ideal traditional seafood restaurant. The scenic view from here, hard to beat, cushions the blows when things aren't perfect.
46. Jesse Wong's Asean Bistro
8775 Centre Park Drive, 410-772-5300
When it opened back in 1999, Jesse was credited with bringing bistro-style sophistication to a drab Asian dining scene. ("Asean," by the way, stands for "Association of East Asian Nations.") The tide has turned in Howard County toward more homespun Asian cuisine, but Jesse Wong's is still a sterling date-night option.
45. Michael's Cafe
2119 York Road, Timonium, 410-252-2022
The very model of the reliable, unpretentious, boisterous, family-owned, family-friendly Baltimore County café and pub. The Dellis Family converted the old Fairgrounds Inn into this haven for softball-sized crabcakes back in 1990, expanded it in 1996, and it's been packed ever since.
44. El Salto
8816 Waltham Woods Road, Parkville, 410-668-3980
The original and still much-loved home (in a former fast-food joint) for inexpensive Mexican food. Old-school combination platters and unlimited supplies of chips and salsa. It's reached inexpensive-eats institution status.
43. Cafe de Paris
8808 Centre Park Drive # 101, Columbia, 410-997-3904
Nine years after making the move to Columbia from its original Laurel home, Erik Rochard's lively French cafe has shown the impressive legs of a can-can dancer. Croque Monsieur, onion soup and escargots of course, but Rochard's approach isn't a museum curator's - it's lighter and more accessible.
1725 Taylor Ave., Parkville, 410-661-4357
In her 1999 review of this Parkville landmark, Elizabeth Large said, "Basically Pappas is the kind of Old Baltimore restaurant - it's been owned and operated by the same folks since 1972 - that I'm very fond of." People swear by the crabcakes here, and standouts like crab imperial and stuffed shrimp. Not the most exciting menu, her review concluded, but "regulars will know the best things on the menu to order."
5002 Honeygo Center Drive, Perry Hall, 410-256-9136
"You can't really go wrong," I wrote in my 2008 review of this pretty restaurant located in the Honeygo Village Center. The menu of Japanese and Chinese favorites has much to recommend, but don't pass up one of the house's "sizzling specialities." A second location operates in Forest Hill.
40. Artful Gourmet
9433 Common Brook Road, Owings Mills, 410-356-2606
The service is sharp and the surroundings are pleasant at this hard-working bistro. The wholesome Mediterranean cuisine has its creative moments but few real surprises. The outdoor patio is worth waiting for.
39. Sunset Restaurant
625 Greenway Road S.E., Glen Burnie, 410-768-1417
Writing in 2003, Elizabeth Large said, "If any restaurant has inherited Haussner's mantle as the quintessential Old Baltimore eating place, it would have to be the Sunset, a Glen Burnie fixture since the '60s." It would be worth a visit just for the relish tray, but the seafood dishes are solidly built, soups are delicious and drinks are stiff.
38. Harry Browne's
66 State Circle, Annapolis, 410-263-4332
We couldn't leave out Harry Browne's, an Annapolis landmark that specializes in providing a kind of classic fine-dining experience that's all but disappeared. How often Harry Browne's still delivers on its promise is one of the capital's evergreen chattering topics.
51 West St., Annapolis, 410-990-9868167 West St., Annapolis, 410-280-0086
A solid one-two punch for the stylish consumption of sushi and pan-Asian cuisine (Tsunami) and Thai food (Lemongrass). Under the same ownership, the two restaurants were left unblemished by the unhappy expansion into Baltimore. Service issues still erupt occasionally, and the atmosphere can be loud (Tsunami) or crowded (Lemongrass).
36. Paladar Latin Kitchen & Rum Bar
1905 Towne Centre Blvd., Annapolis, 410-897-1022
The best thing about this stylish newcomer, imported from Cleveland, of all places, is that it knows what it is. Early on, it felt well managed and sincere about making large groups of people happy on a Saturday night. The main courses can lean toward the fruity or the bland, but the guacamole is surpassingly fresh and a few of the tacos are outstanding.
35. Edgewater Restaurant
148 Mayo Road, Edgewater, 410-956-3202
Only recently has this 60-year-plus roadside eatery become a must-stop on any grand crab cake tour. Its ambience typically gets described as "not fancy" -- and sometimes "definitely not fancy" -- and there are few superlative claims about the balance of the menu, but a great crab cake is worth a road trip.
34. Kings Contrivance
10150 Shaker Drive, Columbia, 410-995-0500
Not inspiring but dependable, well managed, and one of the last destinations for old-school continental dining in Howard County. It endures as a special-restaurant that still feels special.
33. Grille at Peerce's
12460 Dulaney Valley Road, Phoenix, 410-252-7111
Back from the dead, the old Peerce's Plantation has been redone, under different ownership, as a friendly tavern. The menu is in Mark Hofmann's reliable hands, but the bar has been the big draw early on.
32. Christopher Daniel
106 West Padonia Road, Timonium, 410-308-1800
In the capable hands of Christopher Ellis, the contemporary American restaurant has survived the departure of co-owner Daniel Chaustit for Crush in Belvedere Square and somehow even overcome the resistance some diners have to its crowded strip-mall dining room.
7530 Montpelier Road, Laurel, 301-604-5555
Gino Palma-Esposito is the chef at this comfortably stylish bistro, which became an instant hit by hitting all the right notes. It's chic but accessible, and seems to know that kids don't need to be babied with crayons and chicken fingers, which is why they love it.
30. Shin Chon Garden
8801 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, 410-461-3280
The entire list of 50 nearly could have been devoted to Howard County's Asian restaurants. This one is a category-breaker, though, a restaurant that serves memorable and even mesmerizing Korean barbecue. It's worth the trip.
69 West St., Annapolis, 410-268-0003
A main street newcomer that burst out of the gate with an ambitious menu and an attractively self-assured attitude, the "small plates lounge" earned a heap of praise its freshman year.
28. Rumor Mill
8069 Tiber Alley, Ellicott City, 410-461-0041This is an ambitious small-plates fusion joint. It has been know to trip itself up, resulting in inconsistent results, but in a conservative dining town, the Rumor Mill's gung-ho attitude deserves some patient support.
803-805 Frederick Road, Catonsville, 410-788-0075
Regions, the follow-up restaurant to the neighboring Catonsville Gourmet, is another winner for the team. It's admirably sure-footed and impressively versatile, making for an especially welcome addition to the upscale-casual category. It's a place for adults, who have taken to it.
26. Mango Grove
6365 Dobbin Road, Columbia, 410-884-3426
An aside mention here for the House of India, which easily could have made the list. But Rohit Chawla's restaurant earns its ranking by establishing its own cuisine category - the vegetarian cuisine of South India. The dosa, a kind of crepe, is a revelation, and the owner's adjacent restaurant, Mirchi Wok, has meat on the menu, too.
25. Aida Bistro
6741 Columbia Gateway Drive, Columbia, 410-953-0500
Mary and Joe Barbera took their Italian bistro out of its comfort zone, relocating in a new and bigger location across the way. The best addition is an innovative wine-on-tap program, the area's first, which comes along with a full-service wine bar, a great amenity for the area. The menu has kept its seasonal, homemade and local focus and now includes more small-plate options.
24. Elkridge Furnace Inn
5745 Furnace Ave., Elkridge, 410-379-9336
Romantic and gracious, Daniel Wecker's destination restaurant rewards the investment put in it. But the menu has evolved over the years, and has kept evolving without ever lapsing into trendiness.
23. Grace Garden
1690 Annapolis Road, Odenton, 410-672-3581
The classic, middle-of-nowhere, hole-in-the wall Chinese restaurant that's become a destination for delicacies like braised pork belly and fish noodles (the noodles are made of fish, they're sublime). There are two menus here, insist on the traditional version.
22. El Azteca
12210 Clarksville Pike, Clarksville, 410-531-3001
Another Howard County, category-breaking restaurant. Since 1993, owner and chef Gilberto Cortes has been attracting diners here who appreciate the difference good ingredients make and who like seeing rainbow trout in garlic butter alongside the menu's tacos and burritos.
9515 Deereco Road, Timonium, 410-561-3300
There are now five Liberatore's spread across the northern counties. This is the fanciest one, worth dressing up for and worth the splurge. The menu is conservative, and the service is formal, and, although it's not inexpensive here, customers are consistently satisfied.
20. Mari Luna Mexican Grill / Mari Luna Latin Grill
102 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville, 410-486-9910
1010 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville, 410-653-5151
Everyone is mad for the Luna family's two northwest Baltimore County restaurants. The first, in a converted Carvel's ice cream shop, specializes in zesty Mexican food. The second, in Old Pikesville, expanded the culinary horizons throughout South America and brought some panache to a tired neighborhood dining scene. They're the real deal, and speaking of deals, they've both remained affordable options.
19. Tark's Grill
2360 W. Joppa Road, Lutherville-Timonium, 410-583-8275
Just when you thought nothing would ever work again in the old Harvey's spot at Green Spring Station, along came Tark's, which succeeds and pleases through a combination of focus, diligence and customer service. A smart wine list, comfortably jazzy atmosphere and an appealing, if not exactly thrilling, bistro menu round out the picture.
18. Café Troia
31 Allegheny Ave., Towson, 410-337-0133
Twenty five years and counting, Cafe Troia has survived various personnel changes and, more recently, a move across Allegheny Avenue from its long-time (although not original) home. This is serious food like osso buco alla Milanese and herb-encrusted lamb chops, served in a serious, yet uplifting, white-tablecloth dining room.
11 West Aylesbury Road, Timonium, 410-561-1100
It's now quietly established itself as a Timonium standby, which is basically a good, old-fashioned seafood house dressed up in contemporary clothes. The best bet -- the "Fish Market," the daily list of fresh-fish specials, but some folks swear up and down that Bluestone is a great steak house.
16. Trattoria Alberto
1660 Crain Highway South, Glen Burnie, 410-761-0922
Newcomers to Alberto Contestabile's strip-mall restaurant invariably arrive asking, "Are you sure this is the right place," and leave saying, "Who knew?" Lots of people know now, and the pride of Glen Burnie is still dazzling everyone who discovers it again.
15. Orchard Market & Café
8815 Orchard Tree Lane, Towson, 410-339-7700
It's been more than 20 years since Michael Mir converted his Middle-Eastern food market into the area's first Persian restaurant. And it's been almost 15 years since Mir's headwaiter Jason Bulkeley and his wife Sharareh took over. The constant has been the chef, Nahid Vaezpour. Still on the menu, the poached duck in pomegranate-walnut sauce and the stewed leg of lamb with butternut squash and dried plums (although, I think they used to call them "prunes.").
14. Restaurant Sabor
12240 Tullamore Road, Lutherville, 410-628-7227
Rodolfo ("Roddy") Domacasse's wide-ranging restaurant has settled in so nicely. Not many restaurants up here put entrees like curry and turnip lamb stew or calf's liver with Lyonnaise potatoes on the menu. Sabor does, while still turning out impeccalbe pork chops and salmon fillets.
8085 Main St., Ellicott City, 410-720-2330
A gracious addition to Main Street, this newish Italian restaurant welcomes customers with freshly considered takes on traditional Italian fare. The chef, Keith Holsey, appears equally dedicated to spaghetti and meatballs as he is monkfish osso buco and a terrific carpaccio of filet mignon.
12. Hell Point Seafood
12 Dock St., Annapolis, 410-990-9888
The owner and chef here is Bob Kinkead, of Washington, D.C.'s venerable, and somewhat stuffy, Kinkead's. But Hell Point is breezy and the menu sidesteps the reverential attitude other Annapolis restaurants have toward seafood. Kinkead actually does things with his seafood.
11. Sushi Sono
10215 Wincopin Circle, Columbia, 410-997-6131
The reason to make the trip to Lake Kittamaqundi is that Sushi Sono might just have the best sushi in the four-county area. Now a perennial award-winner, the Japanese restaurant has steadily built its reputation over the nearly 13 years it's been open, and news that the owner and chef, who goes by the name of King, is introducing a new roll to this repertoire spreads like green tea over rice.
10. The Oregon Grille
1201 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley, 410-771-0505
The beautiful steakhouse has only grown in stature over the years, as it's served generations of northern Baltimore County residents their birthday, anniversary and graduation dinners. It succeeds by never slipping and never stinting. Its only lapse -- a smugness that occasionally peeks, though.
9. Corner Stable
9942 York Road, Cockeysville, 410-666-8722
Ribs and cakes since 1972, and in the capable hands of Chip and Andy Reed for the past eight years or so. It's true landmark dining, and there's nothing in the city that comes close to competing with it.
8. Victoria Gastro Pub
8201 Snowden River Pkwy., Columbia, 410-750-1880Its chief strength is that is has no big weaknesses. Folks come here to do business, to hang out with friends, to unwind over happy hour, to gorge on duck-fat fries.
7. Tersiguel's French Country Restaurant
8293 Main St., Ellicott City, 410-465-4004
Now in the hands of the Tersiguel family's younger generation, the Main Street classic (nee Chez Fernand) has weathered its share of storms, inluding a fatal fire, a move to and from Baltimore and a name change. The romantic restaurant has shrugged off some of its conservative clothes, but it remains true Brittany bleu.
6. Great Sage
5809 Clarksville Square Drive, Clarksville, 443-535-9400
It went completely vegan last year, and it got better and more popular, which is a good lesson for restaurant owners from Clarksville to Sparks: Do what you think is right, and, people will support you.
5. Catonsville Gourmet
829 Frederick Road, Catonsville, 410-788-0005
Reviewing Catonsville Gourmet in 2008, Elizabeth Large wrote, "Every once in a while, a new restaurant hits the jackpot. It's the right kind of food in the right kind of location with the right kind of atmosphere." This informal, beachy-keen restaurant has held steady since then, and its fans are still singing the praises of the fresh fish preparations and the friendly service.
4. Bistro Blanc
3800 Ten Oaks Road, Glenelg, 410-489-7907
Part wine bar, part restaurant, and a fine showcase for the culinary talents of Marc Dixon. People like to drink a nice glass of wine in a pretty room, it turns out.
3. Iron Bridge Wine Company
10435 State Route 108, Columbia, 410-997-3456
What it does, it does perfectly, and the only serious objection is that it's too popular.
25 Crossroads Drive, Owings Mills,410-356-3030
It manages to please without pandering, and Linwood Dame still shows up every day, ready for battle. Due was a momentary distraction, but now Linwoods stands out as one of the area's most focused restaurants.
1. The Milton Inn
14833 York Road Sparks, 410-771-4366
It leverages every bit of history and drama out of its historic setting while never succumbing to a museum-food approach. You can relax here, indulge yourself, and enjoy the fact that Brian Boston is never going to bore you.