Turn off busy Frederick Road in Catonsville onto Mellor Avenue, and in under a block you're passing Duesenberg's. If you see a crowd out front, it's probably lunchtime. Now try to find a place to park.
The lots across the street are clearly marked private property. Without the signs, many office workers would be forced onto the street. We got lucky and pulled up just as a spot on Mellor opened up.
If parking is an annoyance, it's minor. But compound annoyances add up. The way Duesenberg's is set up, outdoor dining is right at the sidewalk. A white fence about 4 feet tall is all that separates diners from passers-by. The sidewalk is also where the cafe parks customers who are waiting for a table. While you wait, it's no problem to rubberneck and see what everyone's ordering and how far along in the meal they are. I know. I did it. The inside dining area has a we're-all-friends-here closeness to it as well, but without the foot traffic or hungry-looking customers milling about.
And then there's the wait. We didn't have a long one, about 10 minutes. We asked our server if it's often this busy. Every day during lunch — approximately 11:30 to 2:30 — he said, and all day (6 a.m. to 3 p.m.) Fridays and Saturdays.
If regular diners decide to risk a long line on any given visit, Duesenberg's must be doing something right. In fact, after lunch, we decided all the little hassles may well be part of the appeal.
12:23 p.m. We're seated outside and draw a confident, competent server who answered questions and remained attentive over the course of the meal. The outdoor dining space is narrow. If more than two people sit at a table, it's awkward if not impossible for servers to pass from one end to the other. We saw servers carry food to the sidewalk and pass plates over the fence more than once.
12:27 p.m. We get our drinks, tea and Sprecher root beer, and ask for a couple more minutes to look over the several pages of menu. Duesenberg's serves the same lunch and breakfast menu all day. A very few breakfast items are discontinued at 10:30 a.m. (beignets are one). Fellow diners were eating pancakes, French toast, eggs and the like well after noon.
12:32 p.m. After an unusually difficult selection process, we ordered the Atlantic omelet and Alaska "burger," unwilling to decide whether we were eating lunch or breakfast.
You'll have no problem finding entrees under $10 here. A handful of seafood items, unsurprisingly, cost a few dollars more. The eponymous Duesenberg is a kobe beef burger topped with foie gras, black truffles and a Madeira demi glace. That'll set you back almost $22. Don't think I wasn't tempted.
12:48 p.m. Our entrees helped make the connection to the Duesenberg name. An over-the-top, and maybe tongue-in-cheek, extravagance is at work here.
Grilled salmon is so often dry and cakey that I seldom order it outside highly recommended restaurants. But Duesenberg's offer of a medium rare filet topped with smoked salmon, dill sour cream dressing and caviar was too audacious to pass up ($10.45).
An inch thick and tender as pudding, given that we were eating next to a sidewalk, the filet was shockingly good. The brioche roll was a good fit but we abandoned it early to enjoy the salmon. It deserves a better fate than sandwich filler. The accompanying sweet potato fries rank with the best in our experience.
The Atlantic omelet bore a strong clue to Duesenberg's popularity. It outright panders to Marylanders' crab love. Big lumps of the stuff get tucked into the three-egg pouch with a smattering of shrimp and a river of mild Swiss cheese. The American fries weren't bad and the rye toast was OK. The egg dish ($14.75) rendered them irrelevant.
1:11 p.m. This place feels half working class, half beach vacation joint. The kitchen is creative and delivers a sense of fun, a joyous excess. The only thing it doesn't offer in abundance is space. But again, at the end of our meal we felt that was part of the charm, like eating on a neighbor's front porch.
1:15 p.m. You're taking a heck of a chance on turning lunch in an hour here. Factor in the wait and we went just over an hour. Otherwise, Duesenberg's merits a visit for its bodacious fare and eccentric character. It feels like a Maryland original.
• Have you been to Duesenberg's? Write your own review.
Dining time: 52 minutes
Where: 10 Mellor Ave., Catonsville
Lunch hours: 6 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays
Lunch entrees: $3.95-$14.95
[Key: Outstanding:✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]