Who says a restaurant can't offer both picturesque views and a satisfying dining experience?
Actually, everybody says that.
But, come on. Surely it's not always the case that a restaurant that provides views as beautiful and uplifting as the Severn Inn's — views of the Naval Academy Bridge, the Maryland State House and the Severn River itself — will turn out to be as much of a letdown as the Severn Inn was.
I sensed what we were in for even before we walked through the front door. When you peel off Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard into what your GPS system tells you is the Severn Inn, you think you must have made a mistake. But no, this unlighted and unmarked driveway really is your path into the parking lot.
The current Severn Inn was opened in 2005. A previous restaurant, which had been vacant since 1994, was consumed by fire in 2003.
The interior spaces consist of a tavern at the entrance and two dining rooms, the second of which can be sealed off for functions like corporate dinners. The front dining room — not unreasonably, considering the available views — is simple and understated. Still, even a simply designed room can start to look stale after eight years, and the Severn Inn's rooms want some freshening up. Some new carpeting would help, or some healthier-looking plants.
The Severn Inn's menu has almost nothing to say about Chesapeake cuisine, but that's typical of Annapolis' dining scene, which is a conservative one where restaurants favor tilapia and salmon over rockfish. Otherwise, the menu — a lineup of steaks and simple seafood dishes — is broadly appealing.
But things got off to a bad start with a seafood tasting plate, consisting of mushy mini crab cakes, a flabby and zest-free shrimp cocktail, and lukewarm versions of clams casino and baked oysters. Better is an Ahi Tuna Trio, a sampling of sashimi, tartare and a spicy tuna roll. You wouldn't be sorry you ordered it, but it was not much more than presentable and had a packaged feel to it.
The entrees — which included a New York strip steak, a tortilla-crusted Scottish salmon and scallops — are not satisfying. The steak, which at $40 should speak for itself, was topped with a sticky red wine demi-glace. It was perched on a spreading stream of creamed spinach. The salmon was served, creatively I thought, with collard greens and a cheddar grits cake, but it had been overcooked. The scallops had grill marks on their surface but they were slightly chilly inside, and they didn't have any flavor of their own. The lemon aioli they were served with was too strong and dense anyway.
None of this was terrible, really. But it felt like banquet food.
Dessert was a list of things like vanilla creme brulee, banana bread pudding and carrot cake. The carrot cake, coming at the end of a lackluster meal, was excellent. It was spectacular, really, just about the best carrot cake any of us have ever had — thick and dense, but moist and fresh-tasting too, topped with inches and inches of buttery cream-cheese frosting.
We talked about this good view-bad dinner phenomenon on the drive home from dinner at the Severn Inn, when we were trying to think of things to say in its favor.
We liked the service from our cheerful waitress, and we enjoyed the relative quiet of the Severn Inn's main dining room. We liked, too, what we saw of the Severn Inn's terraced patios. It was too chilly to eat outside, but we had no trouble imaging how nice it would be out there in the springtime.
Someone mentioned a place at Baltimore's Inner Harbor as an example of another restaurant that coasts on its views. No, no, no. That place is fine. It might not set your world on fire, but it serves decent food efficiently.
The Severn Inn feels like a ship without a captain, and more and more I've been thinking that the essential quality of a good restaurant is proprietorship. Someone, either the owner or someone with the owner's full confidence, has to care deeply about everything, every single second. Otherwise you end up with a catering facility disguised as a restaurant.
The young staff at the Severn Inn simply haven't been given the tools or the training to deliver a satisfying meal to diners. I think they're doing the best that they can, but someone should have told them that diners don't like sitting too long with uncleared dishes, and they feel funny when the staff starts stripping off the cloths at the empty tables around them.
Where: 1993 Baltimore Annapolis Blvd., Annapolis
Contact: 410-349-4000, severninn.com
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers $4-$11.50; entrees $16-$25
Food: Straightforward American restaurant food
Service: Friendly but undisciplined
Parking/accessibility: On-premises parking lot
Noise level/televisions: The main dining room is quiet. The single television is in the adjacent lounge.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star ]