Though it opened just last year, Gunner's Grille in Taneytown feels like it's been around forever. That's both good and bad.
On the good side, the restaurant's rustic atmosphere is downright charming, and its interpretations of classics, like chicken-fried steak, are capable and comforting.
Unfortunately, at times, our dinner also recalled an era of fewer dining choices (and no dining critique websites), when restaurants could get away with spotty service and food that didn't quite live up to its description.
Located on a pretty stretch of Taneytown Pike, Gunner's looks like an old country tavern — all dark wood and welcoming windows. Inside, local art and distressed barn wood and wagon wheel chandeliers — culled from a Carroll County farm during the 1970s — completes the country look.
We walked into a nearly empty restaurant just after 5 on a recent Sunday, though it filled up with families and older couples as we ate.
A moment after we sat, our waitress arrived to take orders from the straightforward drinks menu. We opted for a Heineken ($4.25) and a glass of goes-with-anything Alamos Malbec ($6.50).
A different waiter delivered our drinks, allowing us to taste the wine — a nice and unusual touch for wine ordered by the glass.
That flip-flop between waiter and waitress set the tone for the evening's inconsistent service. Though sometimes the staff was on top of our requests — the waiter, in particular, was very responsive — we waited and waited for simple things like ketchup for fries or cream for coffee.
The first glitch came early on, when our salads arrived at the same time as an oyster appetizer, instead of one before the other. The wedge salad ($7) was imposing — a whole head of iceberg lettuce dominated the plate — but the blue cheese dressing wasn't quite as tangy as we'd hoped.
The house salad ($5) also proved a mixed bag. The greens and vegetables were crisp and ripe, but the salad was dressed with highly acidic balsamic vinaigrette instead of the hot bacon dressing we requested.
Delivered with the salads, Oysters Taneytown ($13 for five oysters), a house specialty, was the biggest disappointment of the evening. The riff on Oysters Rockefeller sounded interesting: Instead of spinach, the baked oysters were topped with kale braised with garlic, bacon and onion, plus mozzarella cheese.
The combination sounded good, but the concept wasn't executed properly. The kale topping needed to cook considerably longer. It was tough and nearly raw.
Added to that, the oysters needed a few more minutes in the oven. We're fans of both raw and baked oysters, but these, lukewarm and chewy, occupied an uncomfortable spot in between.
The meal improved when our entrees arrived. The French Dip ($10) was a flavorful take on the classic roast beef-and-provolone sandwich. The meat, nicely cooked and tender, was topped with gooey melted cheese.
Chewy rosemary focaccia gave the sandwich a slightly modern spin. Soaked with savory au jus, the herb-studded bread added freshness to the traditionally heavy meal.
The au jus was also a helpful dipping sauce for Gunner's excellent steak fries. Crispy on the outside, soft in the center and seasoned just right, the fries were a highlight.
The chicken-fried steak ($11 for a "single" serving, big enough for a very hearty appetite) was equally appealing. Chef-owner Brooke Hagerty put the steak on the menu as a nod to her father, Gunner, who grew up on an Indiana chicken farm. Chicken-fried steak was a treat for his family, and Hagerty's version, crunchy on the outside, tender and savory inside, did the dish justice.
Though we added a dash of salt to the creamy gravy (and it was better for it), garlicky mashed potatoes and broccoli served on the side were piping hot and seasoned well.
Gunner's procures its desserts from a Glen Burnie company called Aunt Peg's, and they're good ones. Apple pie ($5), spicy with cinnamon, was a pleasant mixture of tart and sweet (though it would've been better just a tinge warmer).
"Monster" chocolate cake ($5) was sweet and satisfying, but earned its intimidating name with layers of chocolate cake, topped by even more chocolate.
Though we ended the food part of the meal on a high note, service problems reared their head again as we waited for the bill. After our waitress passed our table, without glancing at us, for a third time, we got up from our seats to chase her down.
When we walked out the door, we were a little annoyed by the service. But with a look at the surrounding countryside, and a glance back at the pretty building, our irritation faded.
Despite the service problems, the lovely setting made it hard to stay bothered. Especially with bellies full of chicken-fried steak and apple pie.
Back story: Opened in 2011, Taneytown's Gunner's Grille serves classic comfort food favorites in a rustic, charming setting.
Parking: Lot in front
Signature dish: The chicken-fried steak is crunchy and savory — a good match for creamy gravy and garlicky mashed potatoes.
Where: 5525 Taneytown Pike, Taneytown
Contact: 410-756-1080; gunnersgrille.com
Open: Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 12 a.m.; Closed Mondays
Credit cards: All major
[Key: Superlative: ✭✭✭✭✭; Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Very Good: ✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭; Promising: ✭]