I am fascinated with hotel restaurants. It might turn out that I like to think about them more than I like to dine at them.
Consider that a hotel restaurant is designed to appeal to a typical diner, or at least what the hotel industry has determined the typical diner to be, and a hotel restaurant becomes a mirror of our dining tastes, preferences and attitudes.
And when, as has happened frequently in Baltimore over the past three years, a hotel redesigns, remakes or otherwise reconceives its restaurant, the picture comes into sharp focus.
The latest relaunch is at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, the 13-year-old Harbor East hotel, which this spring unveiled completely overhauled restaurant, bar and lounge areas. What used to be separate, distinct operating entities have now been combined into a seamless whole called Apropoe's. It's what Marriott is calling it's "great room" design, and the Baltimore hotel was one of the first Marriotts to receive it.
The great room is actually an L-shaped arrangement beginning with the corridor off the main lobby. Within the space, broken only by wooden screens and partitions, are the square-shaped bar, community high tables where we saw a single laptop user park herself on a Friday night, various arrangements of sofas and chairs where folks were chatting or watching the baseball game on TV, and farther back, the main dining area, which is itself broken up into smaller groupings. A library-like nook with wooden floors and bookshelves is tucked within the dining room, which the hotel calls The Poet's Corner. "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe has been stenciled onto the ceiling.
What you might infer from this arrangement is that Marriott has learned that a hotel guest prefers not to be confined to one environment or to one activity. I get it. In a way, it reminds me of the contemporary home design where the kitchen area and the family room are one continuous area. Everyone can be together, doing their own thing.
The drawback for a diner, or at least one who's not staying at the hotel, is that dinner doesn't feel like dinner. It feels instead like something you're inadvertently doing, while you're checking messages on your smartphone or watching television. And you're never too far from a TV at Apropoe's. There are dozens of flat screens, in every area, but less obtrusively in the dining room, where they're seldom directly in your line of vision.
I enjoyed my recent dinner at Apropoe's. The servers were outgoing and friendly and the food was, for the most part, satisfying, prepared competently and presented attractively, with real concern for appearance. There were bright flavors and vivid colors on dinner dishes, such as the garlicky green chimichurri sauce accompanying a New York strip steak or the sunset-colored smoked-pepper sauce served with two lumpy Maryland crab cakes.
There was evidence of good kitchen technique, as with the careful grilling applied to an appetizer of shell-on Gulf shrimp, which was served chilled, with an Old Bay lemon mayonnaise and cocktail sauce. An Arctic char was pan-seared effectively, leaving this newly popular restaurant fish moist and flaky. The steak was grilled to the requested temperature, and the crab cakes were broiled to a golden-brown.
And the Marriott Waterfront prides itself on having such local touches as cocktails featuring Sloop Betty vodka from Stevensville's Blackwater Distilling, and vegetables grown in the hotel's own garden.
When we found the food lacking, it was because it was underseasoned. Those pretty crab cakes, which had the snowy lumps that diners love to see, were too bland, with neither enough strong crab flavor nor compensating seasoning. It really just needed salt and pepper. And some citrus or other acidity was needed to wake up the pan-seared Arctic char.
But mostly the food was pleasant. I'd recommend Apropoe's to someone who needs to entertain visiting relatives, when they're not certain about how adventurous their tastes are, or for a recently engaged couple introducing their parents to each other for the first time.
But the multi-use environment, which might be ideal for hotel guests, is a minus for natives looking for a place to go on Saturday night.
Apropoe's might not be a dining destination for Baltimore, but it's good to know visitors to our town are being looked after well.
Rating: 2.5 stars
Where: 700 Aliceanna St., Harbor East
Contact: 410-895-1879, marriott.com
Open: 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Friday; 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Prices: Appetizers: $7-$13; entrees: $21-$29
Food: Contemporary American bistro food
Service: Enthusiastic and informed
Parking: Valet parking is validated for up to three hours at a discounted fee of $8. Paid parking lots and garages are close by, as is metered street parking.
Children: A children's' menu is available upon request.
Special diets: The staff is trained to respond to questions about allergens and to make recommendations about modifying menu items.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine in the main dining area. There are too many screens to count, but the screens in the main dining area are hung above eye level, and there the volume is turned down on all of the sets.
[Star key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]