Who said there are no second acts in American dining?
Clyde's of Columbia has been an anchor on the Columbia lakefront since 1975. That's impressive, but time has a way of catching up with everything. And now that Columbia is in the middle of a multi-year downtown revitalization, it was time to freshen up Clyde's, too.
So Clyde's closed in late 2012, gave itself a $5 million renovation, and reopened in April. The renovations are both structural and cosmetic. Returning patrons might not notice things like the new sprinkler system, but they'll note that Clyde's has moved closer to the lake — an extension has added both breathing room and additional booth seating.
There is a new timbered ceiling and fresh carpeting, too, and the sum effect of the cosmetic renovations has been to make Clyde's look like a refreshed version of itself.
Clyde's of Columbia still has the preppy feel of the Georgetown original, which opened back in 1963. (There are now nine Clyde's operating in Washington, Virginia and Maryland.)
The chief decorating flourish are still the vintage travel posters that cover every available inch of wall space. The focal point is still the 46-foot main bar, but the redesign has moved much of the dining area a half-level below the bar space. That might not be far enough. The bar scene can still dominate, which is not a bad thing if you're up for the energy and the noise, but our conversation was strained.
The redesign missed a few opportunities. The signature yellow-and-white striped awnings have been replaced by nothing, and you can walk by the main entrance a few times without realizing it. There are enduring issues with how Clyde's and its neighboring restaurants relate to the lakefront setting — not well — and with confusing or nonexistent directional signage. Welcome to Columbia.
The menu has advanced from traditional burger-centric tavern fare to contemporary tavern fare, which means Thai-style steak spring rolls, Korean pork belly tacos, a hummus trio and steak frites.
There's even an American Farmhouse Cheese Sampler, which makes Clyde's sound downright hip, until you notice the cheeses are from Wisconsin, Vermont and Minnesota. That's a little weird, as though Clyde's hasn't been told that great cheese is being produced in its own backyard.
It's this disengagement, from the region and its location on the water, that ultimately makes Clyde's feel dated in spite of its redesign. Failing to better orient the dining areas to take advantage of the lakefront location was a missed opportunity.
The only thing lacking, though, with the food Clyde's serves — and this is across the board — is a lack of seasoning, particularly salt. The food looks good, dishes are assembled thoughtfully and presented, for the most part, attractively. But things are bland.
Under-salting was a problem with meat. The flavors in a rib-eye steak and the hanger steak on an order of steak frites were flat as result.
There was shyness in the seasoning of the Korean pork belly tacos and a new vegetarian entree, curried chickpea cakes. You came away thinking that Clyde's had underestimated its patrons' appreciation of foreign flavors. Or, just as bad, indulged their aversion to them. The three components of a good-looking hummus trio, a traditional preparation and ones with harissa, a hot-chili flavored condiment, and pomegranate, all tasted alike, more or less.
The best dishes were those that don't rely on assertive seasoning, or are better off without them.
A soft-shell crab entree was a crunchy, juicy delight, with a batter just thick enough to hold together without overwhelming the delicate crab beneath, and just salty enough to expand the crab's flavors without disguising them.
And a special halibut dish worked very well. Cooking left the fish's snow-white meat moist and flaky, and the accompanying mushroom barley and the shaved-asparagus salad and pickled ramps came across as thoughtful, chef-driven choices.
The halibut was Clyde's special, systemwide, for the entire month of May.
Desert brought two nice surprises: a buttery blueberry cake and a strawberry shortcake, each served with homemade whipped cream and each suggesting a regional sensibility or feeling that the main menu lacks.
And good service helped. Our waiter was thoughtful and efficient, with welcome advice about beer pairings. And for a high-volume restaurant, the staff manages to move things along smoothly.
I spoke up, though, when the entrees arrived before the dirty appetizer plates had been cleared away.
Mostly, Clyde's seems to have a good handle on what its customers like. The changes to both the design and to the menu don't feel cautious so much as strategic, definitely shrewd, and probably what I would have approved if I was on the board of directors.
Clyde's of Columbia
Rating: 2 stars
Where: 10221 Wincopin Circle, Columbia
Contact: 410-730-2829, http://www.clydes.com
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers $8.95-$10.95; entrees $15.95 -$23.95
Food: All-American tavern fare with regional specialties
Service: Energetic and knowledgeable
Best dishes: Soft-shell crabs, halibut with shaved asparagus salad
Outdoor dining: There is seating for approximately 70 diners on the patio.
Parking: Free parking in adjacent lots.
Children: A children's menu is available.
Noise level/television: Brassy, with little relief in dining areas from bar. The two televisions can be a distraction during home games.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun