My friend and I had been at our table in Reynolds Tavern (circa 1747) on Church Circle only moments when a party of six came in the front door.
Their leader looked in the dining room, broke into a wide grin and turned to his companions:
"Look at this place! This is it! Let's eat here!"
The group, clearly visitors to Annapolis, craned their necks for a peek at the 18th-century period decor and atmosphere.
"Perfect!" someone exclaimed just as we heard the host say: "Will that be six for dinner?"
The two graceful dining rooms are quiet, evocative places for a meal. The decibel level is perhaps the lowest in town, encouraging conversation and pleasant memories. Service matches the atmosphere. You're not likely to feel rushed or forgotten.
The menu is uncomplicated with 10 starters, soups and salads, a trio of house specialties and a tidy list of seven standing entrees plus a chef's special. The only surprise: There are no surprises. It's comfort food served in big portions — some of the starters could be a meal.
Seafood dominates the appetizers with shrimp, scallops, oysters and mussels. But roasted brussels sprouts, macaroni and cheese, and fried green tomatoes are available as well.
We tried the shrimp and grits ($9) and mussels sauteed in garlic, white wine and lemon ($11).
The cheddar grits were laced with bacon tomato jam and tasso ham, and happily the nicely cooked shrimps' flavor still came through. It was a filling opener.
Less successful were the mussels. The rich broth was seasoned well, but the Prince Edward Island mussels were small, chewy and several did not open during cooking.
The four salad offerings include a warm goat cheese, house salad, iceberg lettuce wedge and Caesar. Given the size of the starters, we shared the Caesar ($8), a competent version of the old standby that seemed to be dressed from a bottle rather than fresh.
Main course choices all are solidly in the comfort food category. A fried chicken breast has that Sunday dinner feel to it, a couple of steak entrees, crab cakes, rockfish, salmon and scallops, shepherd's pie, and fish and chips are among the choices.
A pair of crabcakes with red bliss mashed potatoes and succotash ($29) delivered a good crab-to-filler ratio and the seasoning was just spicy enough (easy on the Old Bay gang) without overpowering the crab.
A Cajun shrimp and pasta bowl ($19) with big chunks of andouille sausage in a creamy sauce spiked with onions and tomatoes was plenty for one person and a midnight snack later. The menu called for added crumbled goat cheese, which I skipped. It was a rich-enough meal without it, hearty and good.
Desserts here are mostly from outside sources. We shared a warm pound cake with a smooth caramel topping ($6) and enjoyed an old-fashioned ending.
Try counting the number of restaurants and other eating opportunities between Church and State circles and the Annapolis harbor. Give up?
Is it 40 or 50? It might be closer to 70 if you add in the string of eateries along West Street out to the Arts District. They cover the waterfront, so to speak. Craving Italian, Asian, Irish, regional American, seafood, deli, barbecue, a traditional steakhouse? It's all there and more.
Into a lively bar scene with seemingly never-ending happy hours, trendy small plate menus or pricier fine dining? They're just a short walk in any direction.
But a bit away from the crowd, you can wander into Reynolds Tavern or downstairs to the Pub with a menu that offers sandwiches and many of the Tavern items, or around the corner to its Courtyard, which seems more like a community meeting than a nightspot. You can even rent a room and spend the night. Or have a pleasant afternoon tea (more than 30 varieties are offered) with finger sandwiches and tiny pastries.
Reynolds Tavern was born 270 years ago as an extension of a hat business. William Reynolds rented rooms and operated an "ordinary" serving food and liquor. The graceful old building has had many incarnations over the nearly three centuries but today, it is what it was.
WHERE: 1747 Pub and Courtyard, 7 Church Circle, Annapolis
HOURS: Daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Dinner in the Tavern: Wednesday-Sunday, 5:30 to 9 p.m.
EXECUTIVE CHEF: Marilyn Burge
CHEF: Fernando Juarez
HOUSE SPECIALTIES AND ENTREES: $14-$30
RESERVATIONS: Recommended for the Tavern, not accepted for Pub and Courtyard
CREDIT CARDS: All major credit cards