When it comes to restaurants, never underestimate the role of location.
For Plates, a casual American eatery located in the Downtown Athletic Club and surrounded by midtown office buildings, the location means a busy lunch but not much of a dinner rush.
Sometimes the best time to visit a restaurant is in its off hours. At Plates, we found good service, well-executed, familiar food and a quiet — though sometimes slightly odd — atmosphere, right in the center of the city.
Scene & Decor During our visit, on a rainy Thursday night, Plates was nearly empty, though we did see a handful of diners grabbing a drink or a bite after the gym.
In itself, a location next to a gym is no big deal. Restaurants have neighbors. However, most restaurants don't share glass walls with said neighbors; Plates does. That visual link between the two spaces left us with the erroneous impression that Plates was somehow part of the gym.
The two businesses have different entrances, though, and Plates' entryway is peculiar. Diners walk through a passage that must have originally been a storage room or exit hallway. A few decorations try to spruce up the spot but don't disguise it enough to erase the feeling that you're somehow behind the scenes.
But the gym window and strange entrance are small things. Inside, Plates' decor has the vaguely urban-industrial vibe of a West Elm catalog — think metal tables and rough wood accents. It feels a little generic but is appealing enough, especially because Plates' food works.
Appetizers Our first course was a home run all the way around. A cup of crab and corn chowder ($4.99) was creamy and thick, with chunks of crab. The soup was well seasoned with just a hint of underlying sweetness, thanks to the corn and crab.
A large plateful of fried calamari dunked in Buffalo sauce and served with blue cheese ($8.99) was fantastic. The calamari was cooked nicely — it was tender with just enough breading to balance the spicy sauce. Buffalo sauce and squid are a good pair.
Entrees Like the calamari, the lamb cheese steak ($10.99) put a simple but unexpected spin on a familiar dish. Replacing the beef with provolone-covered lamb made the sandwich a crossover between a gyro and the Philadelphia classic. Somehow, it ended up tasting more sophisticated than either of those sandwiches do on their own.
Fries, on the side, were just as good. Thick enough to be hearty but still crispy on the outside, they hit all the right notes.
Two oversized mahi mahi and shrimp tacos ($10.99) were the only disappointment of the evening. The flavors worked — the pico de gallo was fresh and we especially liked the smoky chipotle aioli — but the fish itself, chopped into small bites, was overcooked. Rubbery shrimp didn't ruin the tacos, but we found ourselves focusing more on the vegetables and a smoking hot side of Spanish rice while avoiding the fish.
Drinks Plates doesn't offer any beers on tap but they do make a mean glass of sangria ($8). Fruity, but not too sweet, the drink was fun and also a good match for the food.
A glass of Finca El Origen malbec ($8), a smooth and peppery red from Argentina, was equally drinkable — especially with the rich, savory crab and corn chowder.
Dessert Dessert was a comically large slice of sweet potato cheesecake ($4.99), made in-house. When we saw the size of the slice, we were sure we'd leave half of it on the plate. But after a few bites of the creamy, tangy-sweet filling, we were hooked. We ate the whole thing.
Service Eating at Plates outside of office hours meant we had nearly the whole place to ourselves — and the dedicated service of our waitress. She was as friendly as could be, offering recommendations and making sure our drinks stayed full.
By the time we left, we were the only people in the place. That can be uncomfortable, but at Plates, the lack of company felt more private than weird, like we'd chosen someplace off the beaten dinner path.
Between the happy service and approachable and sometimes surprising menu, it felt like a smart choice, too.
Back story: Opened in mid-2012 by Baltimore native and restaurant veteran Valanti Koliofotis, Plates adds a likable casual dining option to the midtown restaurant scene.
Parking: Street parking and multiple garages
Signature dish: The lamb cheese steak is a fun twist on the familiar Philly sandwich. Instead of beef, shaved lamb joins melted provolone, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise on a crusty roll. The lamb's slight gaminess makes the sandwich more sophisticated — even edgier — than traditional cheese steaks.
Where: 210 East Centre Street, Baltimore
Contact: 443-453-9139; platesbaltimore.com
Open: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday-Friday; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday; Closed Saturday
Credit Cards: All major
Bottom line: Casual American classics and good service in an unlikely midtown location