The rock music is deafening when you enter the dark bar, and people are shouting to be heard over it. Your head starts to pound in time to the music. You know you don't want to eat dinner with this much noise, but you don't much feel like turning around and walking out again. So you start up the steep staircase to the dining room, past the surprisingly elegant little aquarium set in the wall, up to the door at the top.
And you're in another world. (As long as the door is shut.)
The second floor of this Charles Street rowhouse consists of several small rooms connected by a hallway. The front one is particularly charming, with a fireplace, a fabulous chandelier (which has appeared in at least three movies shot here -- read about it on the wall plaque), nicely spaced tables, carpeting and draperies to help muffle sound and, yes, Mozart on the sound system. At just the right volume. Very civilized.
The back room with a bar is more casual, but the same warm color scheme of mauve, burgundy and brick is carried through. The walls are hung with vintage posters, and the lighting is soft.
I don't mean to suggest that Central Station is in any way a formal restaurant, but it's certainly more sedate than downstairs would ever lead you to believe. The emphasis is on moderately priced American food, with a menu that includes sandwiches and dinner salads as well as full dinners. It's a neighborhood restaurant, a place where you can spend around $15 apiece for dinner and feel satisfied. We're not talking haute cuisine here, although one dish we had, a veal chop, was world-class.
The chop itself was full of flavor and wonderfully tender, with a dark, winy sauce studded with wild mushrooms. The crusty little roast potatoes complemented it beautifully, and emerald-green snow peas added a tasty -- of color.
The kitchen is at its best when it comes to steaks and chops: a filet mignon was juicy and pink as ordered, just about perfect except for its perfectly dreadful bearnaise sauce. This was no silky hollandaise infused with tarragon, but a thick concoction that tasted mostly of vinegar and dried herbs.
While I liked the dish named chicken and shrimp Lorenzo, the person who ordered it felt it was bland. But how much excitement do you want for dinner? It was pleasant enough: boneless chicken breast and three big shrimp were sauteed in garlic butter, then served with rice and a mild wine sauce.
The only one of our four main courses I had any complaint about was mine, a special that evening and the only fish available. Salmon baked in puff pastry sounded great. But the salmon wasn't quite as fresh as it should have been, and the puff pastry was a little soft. About the only thing that really worked was the delicate lemon sauce.
Speaking of complaints, we had none about the service. Our waiter was excellent: attentive but not too attentive. The only glitch (and this was probably the kitchen's fault) was that the two of us who had ordered soup got it -- and finished it -- before the other two first courses arrived.
Both were good soups. The shrimp bisque was a heady mixture of seafood, cream, sherry and spices. And the special that evening, Italian wedding soup, was even better: a comforting chicken broth filled with miniature meatballs and fresh spinach.
We didn't fare as well with our other first courses. One simply didn't work as an appetizer, the other was the only out-and-out failure of our meal. If you layer breaded and fried rounds of eggplant with tomato sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan, and you serve it up in man-size squares, you end up with a very filling dish Central Station calls eggplant Christina. Not bad, but by no stretch of the imagination a first course.
I ordered clams casino, which started with plump, fresh clams but included plenty of grit and a thick blanket of soggy, oddly seasoned crumbs. The bacon curls were limp and fatty.
Dinners come with a decent little salad of mixed greens in a good vinaigrette. Someone in the kitchen must have just learned to make sliver-thin onion garnishes because everything was arranged with them, from the salads to the chop, fish, chicken and steak -- even the clams if I remember correctly. The desserts were spared.
Central Station's desserts are pleasant, but nothing on the pastry tray will amaze you. I'd vote for a nice, creamy cheesecake and a moist rum cake with real rum added at the last minute. You've had one carrot cake, you've had 'em all; but then carrot cake lovers never meet a carrot cake they don't like, and Central Station's won't be an exception.
Central Station, 1001 N. Charles St., (410) 752-7133. Open for lunch Mondays to Fridays, for dinner every day, for brunch Sundays. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: no. Prices: appetizers, $3.50-$6.95; entrees: $8.95-$15.95. **1/2