If you grew up eating gefilte fish, bagels with lox and corned beef on rye, and if you've lived in the Baltimore area for any length of time, chances are you've tucked into a heaping plate of Jewish-style food at Suburban House more than once.
Since 1965, this casual restaurant has been a local landmark, serving up classics like matzo ball soup, blintzes and brisket to generations of loyal customers, Jewish and otherwise. It was never exactly fine dining — the kugel could be a bit heavy, the soups a bit salty — but it tasted home-made.
Well, the longstanding tradition could have gone the way of Haussner's and other Baltimore institutions when a July 2009 fire destroyed the Reisterstown Road restaurant. Instead, the owners opened a year later in a larger location just down the road. The new restaurant seats nearly 200, up from about 165 before, and has the benefit of an enormous parking lot. As before, a separate deli counter dominates the entrance, with the dining room behind it.
The new space is clean, large and pretty much devoid of personality. But on a recent weekday it was packed, and the buzz of conversation in the dining room was almost joyous, as people greeted neighbors and friends at nearby tables. I couldn't help but notice that many of the people eating at Suburban House were in large groups, often of several generations.
Suburban House serves Jewish food, but it's not a kosher restaurant. That means blintzes and gefilte fish are on the menu, but so are shrimp salad sandwiches and bacon cheeseburgers.
When it moved to the new location, it added a few menu items, while keeping the ones that made it famous. Now, customers can pick and choose ingredients from lengthy lists to "design" their own salads. This is great in theory, but it's a little depressing because the kitchen doesn't even pretend to bring any artistry to the creation. If you choose romaine lettuce, three additional vegetables and a scoop of tuna salad, that's exactly what you will get.
Large portions are a hallmark here. The matzo ball in the matzo ball soup is actually larger than a tennis ball, which is a problem because it sticks out of the broth, drying in the air. (A friend suggested turning it every few minutes to keep it moist.)
Sandwich choices include hamburgers, shrimp salad and cheesesteaks. I heartily recommend the chicken salad, with its fat chunks of white meat, a touch of mayo, and not much else. The pickles are respectably crunchy and garlicky, but the coleslaw is too thick and sweet.
Desserts at Suburban House are made on the premises and are as homey as can be. A Pimlico cake with a sweet chocolate frosting tasted as though it had started life as a cake mix, while an éclair contained what tasted like the same vanilla-pudding filling. Milkshakes in a variety of flavors are so thick they are hard to drink through a straw.
For a restaurant with such a large menu (and long history), the service was surprisingly disorganized. Our waitress had never heard of an egg cream, even though it was on the menu. Once someone explained it to her, she gladly mixed up milk, chocolate syrup and seltzer to make a fresh one. She also didn't clear our dirty plates, simply moving them aside when she put desserts on the table. That was kind of weird.
Suburban House isn't perfect, but that's part of its charm. It's survived fire and recession and seems likely to stick around a long time, keeping its customers happy with food that's neither fancy or clever, just traditional and comforting.
Where: 1700 Reisterstown Road, Suite 105, Pikesville
Hours: Open daily 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Food: ✭ ✭ ✭
Service: ✭ ✭
Atmosphere: ✭ ✭ 1/2
Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor