A random evening at The Food Market

The day darkens, and a text message pops up on your phone. "Dinner?" it asks. Of course, it's up to me to decide on the place. But where, where can we go that we know we'll be happy? No thinking tonight, please, and no learning. We're willing to spend a little bit of money but not a ton, and it would be nice to see some friendly faces, too. The Food Market it is. There's a wait for a seats at the bar but not too long. And before you know it, the food is in front of you. What was it this time? Fried oysters, a hamburger — I think someone got talked into Heath bar bread pudding. Does it matter? And when was this — April or October? It's hard to remember, except for the feeling that The Food Market is so popular because it gives people just what they want with grace and style.

A birthday dinner at Verde

I try not to dine out in large groups. Anything larger than six, and you're bound to have a picky eater, a contrarian or someone who just wishes that we'd all gone somewhere else. But Verde, which specializes in Neapolitan pizza but offers a full menu of rustic appetizers and pastas, turned out to be the exception. What helped so much was the graciousness of the staff, which has been inspired by the owners of this chic but warm Canton restaurant. A good time was had by all, even the vegans.

Going whole hog at Shin Chon Garden

I never rushed to get to Shin Chon Garden, even though people around here swore by the barbecue at this Ellicott City restaurant, where the meats are grilled at the table. I figured Shin Chon would be there when I got around to it. This year, I finally made it. The impetus was its inclusion on a TV travel show, one in which the host lost his mind over Shin Chon Garden's barbecue, proclaiming it some of the best he's had anywhere in the Unite States. Sometimes, it takes an outsider to point out what's plain. Shin Chon Garden is a treasure.

Finding a new favorite at Mekong Delta

Visit after visit to Mekong Delta, I'd get the pho. After all, I'd been waiting years for a good pho joint, so why bother with the other noodle dishes on the menu when I could have a big bowl of beefy noodle soup? Then one day, something made me ask about the Hu Tieu Tom Thit, which the menu says is a Southern-style Vietnamese noodle soup, with jumbo shrimp, barbecue pork, clear noodles and scallions in a sizzling broth. "Get it," said Luan Nguyen, the small cafe's owner. We did. So long, pho.

Dim sum frenzy at Asian Court

I get asked a lot if anyone serves dim sum. Asian Court on Baltimore National Pike does, on Saturday and Sunday. (Actually, they serve dim sum every day, but only on weekends do they serve dim sum on carts, which is a big part of the fun). I had loved my dinners and lunches at Asian Court, when I ordered from the regular menu, but dim sum made me dizzy and giddy, all in a good way — sesame buns, dumplings, so many different vegetables and, every now and then, tripe or feet.

A brothers' dinner at Aldo's

Back in the summer, at my suggestion, my two brothers and I met for dinner at Aldo's. I keep telling people that this is the Little Italy restaurant they should be going to, and everything I love about Aldo's — the big flavors, the smart service — was shining especially bright this night. I think it was the veal Milanese, one of those things Aldo's gets right every time, that clinched the deal for me. And for once, I actually looked like the smart one in the family.