My tablemates at Tark's Grill had never dined there before, so I gave them a brief history lesson.
I told them about Harvey's, the restaurant that flourished in this Green Spring Station location for about 20 years, from the early 1980s to 2000, and about the string of ambitious restaurants that moved into the space after Harvey's closed. None of them lasted long, and the location began to feel jinxed.
Then Tark's opened in 2008, and all was right again. Now, as then, the secret to the success of Tark's was a simple formula. Tark's is consistent, and it knows what its customers want.
Located near the city-county border, at the convergence of the Baltimore Beltway and the Jones Falls Expressway, Tark's is a true crossroads restaurant.
The diners that come here aren't looking for surprises; they're looking for a reasonably priced hamburger on a weeknight, or a reliable place to take friends for a weekend steak. And if they find a favorite on the menu, they expect it to stay around for a while.
The trade-off is that just around the edges, Tark's menu has started to feel a little dated. You could go as far as saying it's uninspired. And if you're looking for a restaurant to surprise you, then Tark's wouldn't be your first choice.
But not every meal has to be a revelation. My advice is to sit back in your banquette and enjoy a quiet night with your friends and family.
Tark's main dining room has aged well. It's dressy but comfortable, with plenty of booth seating. But customers also have the option of seating in a heated courtyard, just outside Tark's bar area, which has a devoted local following. It's a see-and-be-seen place.
The menu is divided up logically and simply. There are sections of starters, salads and light fare like crab cake sandwiches and hamburgers. Main dishes are then separated into Tark's Specials, which are fully designed entrees like shrimp and pappardelle, chicken pot pie and braised short rib with whipped potatoes and greens.
There are additional listings for seafood and meats. The diner gets to choose how the seafood is prepared — broiled, cedar-planked or Creole style, for example — and which sauce gets served his or her choice of meat — black peppercorn with the filet mignon, say, or bordelaise with the New York strip.
There are standouts among the starters.
We split a large serving of a Tark's signature dish, Lindsay's Chicago Chopped Salad, among four people, which was thoughtfully portioned out for us in the kitchen. Dressed with blue cheese, and filled with cucumber and big bits of bacon, the salad gets its satisfyingly piquancy from chopped pickles and jalapeno peppers.
Served with a fine remoulade and a bright cocktail sauce, fried oysters were terrific; the oysters were plump, briny and juicy underneath their slightly crispy, gently seasoned coating. That old standby, popcorn shrimp, was appealing, too, with the pleasant mild flavor of fresh shrimp present in every bite.
The weakest appetizer was the fried calamari, which was just slightly better than mediocre.
The best of our entrees was a Chilean sea bass, which we ordered prepared Thai-style — steamed and served over rice noodles in a spicy vegetable-filled broth that complemented the fish's mild flavor. We were satisfied with our filet mignon, which we ordered served with Tark's rich house sauce.
Presented on a toasted brioche bun, the un-fussy, well-seasoned hamburger is just the kind of menu item that keeps people coming back to Tark's. It's good to give people that option.
Tark's nontraditional version of chicken Parmesan, a large cutlet on top of thick pasta noodles, erred too much on the side of healthful concern. The cutlet was barely breaded, and the dish didn't have enough cheese.
Among a dessert list of familiar items like Key lime pie and carrot cake, the one to get is the rich, dense, brown-edged coconut poundcake, one of the best poundcakes I've ever had.
The secret weapon here is the service. Crusty bread arrives at the table quickly. Our whining comment about a passion fruit crush cocktail not being served over crushed ice was handled like this: The waiter took the drink back and crushed the ice himself.
Tark's succeeds by doing things like that right.
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 2360 W. Joppa Road, Lutherville
Contact: 410-583-8275, tarksgrill.com
Open: Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers: $9-$15; Entrees: $16-$34
Food: Contemporary American cuisine
Service: Quick and informed
Outdoor dining: Courtyard dining in most weather
Parking/accessibility: Ample lot parking at Green Spring station
Children: No children's menu
Special diets: The kitchen will make accommodations for special diets.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine in the main dining room. There are two televisions in the bar area, which typically have their volume turned off
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[Star key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]