Costas Inn

The chicken imperial entree with vegetables at the Costas Inn in Dundalk. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun photo / February 21, 2013)

In Baltimore, everybody knows Costas Inn.

The Dundalk institution has been around since 1971, when Costas Triantafilos — still the owner, now working with his son, Pete — opened the restaurant. Since the '70s, Costas has grown into a nationally recognized crab powerhouse, serving steamed crabs year-round and shipping crab cakes and crab seasoning all over the country.

But back in Baltimore, the restaurant is more than just a place to pick crabs. We visited Costas during the "off" season to see what else the Baltimore landmark has to offer.

Despite uneven service, we liked what we found. Costas' food is traditional, familiar and mostly well executed.

The decor is simple — walls are covered with Baltimore sports memorabilia and locally inspired artwork, and tables are set with paper napkins and paper placemats. That low-key look works. Nobody's there to bask in an elaborate dining room.

On a chilly Wednesday night, that dining room was more than half full — and only one table was eating crabs (they smelled great). The space is large and able to accommodate big groups — we spied several multi-generational families sharing tables.

At Costas, avoiding crab altogether is difficult – it's an integral part of many dishes. We succumbed to the crustacean with our first course: a 5 ounce crab cake appetizer ($13.95), served broiled (by request) with crackers and cocktail sauce.

The "best crab cake in Baltimore" debate is a popular one; every native has a favorite. Costas' appetizer proved the restaurant has earned its spot in those conversations.

The presentation was uncomplicated — a handful of club crackers scattered next to the round crab cake, which looked larger than we imagined 5 ounces of crab would.

Made with blue crab flown in from the Gulf of Mexico, Costas' light touch with filler and seasoning kept the crab's sweet flavor at the forefront. We sprinkled a few bites with a touch of Costas' house-blended seasoning; the spicy-salty mixture was a good one and brought out the subtle flavor of crab.

Chicken imperial ($23.95) combined the same delicate lump crab with imperial sauce as a topping for sauteed chicken breast.

The chicken, cooked nicely, was tender, but acted mostly as a simple base for the sauce. Creamy and crab-heavy, it was both decadent and lovely.

But crab wasn't the only good thing on Costas' menu. Orange roughy Rockefeller ($19.95) showed off the kitchen's skill with other types of seafood.

Taking inspiration from the famous oyster dish, the white fish was topped with Amaretto creamed spinach and provolone, then baked. Alone, the fish was flaky, if a bit bland, and on its own, the topping was luscious, but overwhelming.

Together, though, they were excellent. Orange roughy, with its mild flavor and firm texture, balanced the intensely rich spinach and cheese topping.

Unsurprisingly, given its old school atmosphere and crab-centric menu, Costas' wine list is limited. But glasses of Canyon Road pinot grigio ($3.95) were an acceptable match for both the chicken and fish, if not unusual or inspired.

Each entree comes with two side dishes. Though the entrees were successful, the sides were a mixed bag. A sauteed vegetable medley, including zucchini and squash, was bright and well seasoned, and a small dish of spicy, salty roasted red bliss potatoes was fantastic.

However, a hefty portion of broccoli tasted bland and listless. Though cooked just until al dente, it was underseasoned. More disappointing, a house salad never made its way to our table. By the time we realized the salad was missing, we were well into our entrees.

The absent salad was one part of what proved to be erratic service overall. Our waitress was both friendly and knowledgeable, but she disappeared for long stretches at a time — including a long lag before our appetizer arrived and again when we were waiting for the check.

During those lags, the hostess and another waitress occasionally stopped by the table to refill drinks and clear empty plates. The tag team approach was helpful, but it wasn't enough.