"This restaurant is very old," our waiter at Danny's said. "It goes back to 1969." It was only his second day on the job, and he was fresh from Spain. Old-timers, we enjoyed telling him it's much older than that -- it goes back to the mid-'50s. It's so old that we felt a fretful sympathy for it recently.
Our first problem came a few weeks ago. We'd reserved a table for a Wednesday night. When we arrived, our hostess had the reservation but no place to put us. She tried seating us by ourselves in the distant corner of an empty room at a table without a tablecloth, but we all thought it grim, and left.
Midsummer, our luck was better, but we experienced other unusual phenomena. Above the door to the main dining room, about a third of the years and years of congratulatory plaques awarded to Danny's by Mobil Travel Guide and Holiday magazine hung at odd angles to the floor. In a display bouquet of carnations, the stems of several flowers bent down. At our table, the gold filigree on our plates was mostly rubbed away. Fingerprints smudged the porcelain and smeared the mirror behind us.
I ordered a sweet vermouth. I received a Manhattan, in one of those marvelous ice cream coupe glasses with a throat for chocolate syrup just above the stem. Fingerprints covered that glass, too. When I explained I hadn't ordered a Manhattan, our waiter said, "They wouldn't believe me when I said 'vermouth.' "
We were brought plates of dried, oiled slices of bread, fresh rolls and fresh butter. The oiled bread stayed with us to the end, through dessert and coffee. We noticed that one of our menus had prices considerably different from the other two.
Somewhat bemused, we ordered, for appetizers, a pate en croute ($7.50), and a shrimp dish, les crevettes Cote d'Azur ($12). The pate was peculiarly dry, leading us to speculate that bread may have been important among its ingredients. "En croute" should refer to an enveloping pastry. There was none. Still, the pate's flavors were likable, and there were two large slices of it on the plate, as well as cucumber, tomato, lettuce and a couple of bland olives.
The five shrimp were chunky, juicy and good, though served over some very wet chicken-flavored rice, with a pretty dice of fresh tomato at the center. We thought $12 was a lot to charge for the preparation.
Danny's wine list struck us as pricey. After some puzzling, we settled on a bottle of Saintsbury pinot noir ($27). The man who seemed to be in charge of the room asked us, after our first glass, whether we wanted to order another bottle. We said we didn't, whereupon he filled our glasses to near the brim and removed the bottle. It's less of a pleasure drinking wine from a glass as full as a filled wa- ter goblet. We conjectured that he wanted us to know we had disappointed him.
For entrees, we ordered poulet au vinaigre, or stuffed chicken breast ($15.95), sea scallops with Smithfield ham ($16.95) and, because we'd seen a "whales" banner for so many years over Danny's door, whales ($24), or soft-shelled crabs. The chicken breast was a palatable wrapping of chicken around cheese and ham, over a flavored rice similar to the rice served with the shrimp appetizer. Two pools of sauce tasted like hot, nearly undiluted Dijon mustard.
The sea scallops were fresh and not overdone. My companion forked them free from the intensely salty ham in cream sauce that surrounded them, and their rice pilaf base. We all agreed, much too much salt made most of what was on the plate impossible to eat. The three whales were whales! -- about 5 1/2 inches from one tip of the carapace to the other, and delicious, though the french fries that came with them were mass-production dull.
We tried three desserts, a simple, commercial raspberry sherbet ($2.50), a cheerful deep-dish apple pie ($3.50) that tasted very much of apple, and, at our waiter's suggestion, crepes suzette, flambee ($7.50).
The order for crepes suzette brought us a second waiter, a maitre d', a fancy service cart, a copper brazier and a copper crepe pan, a half a cup of sugar, three crepes in a dish, a generous cup of triple sec, Cointreau and brandy combined, and an orange. With hands sticky with orange juice, the second waiter poured and stirred unself-consciously, until the maitre d' took over to add more sugar and alcohol.
In his portrait near a sideboard, famed French chef Auguste Escoffier didn't look like someone having a good time. What would he have made of our very jumbled and indecipherable bill? any case, Danny's addition and our mental figuring matched within a dollar -- about $125 before tip. *
Next: Ding How
Danny's, 1201 N. Charles St., 539-1393
Hours: Mondays to Saturdays 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. for dinner; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Accepts: ** /- *
Features: Continental cuisine
No-smoking area: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes