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Mount Washington Tavern, 5700 Newbury St., (410) 367-6903. Open every day for lunch and dinner; Sunday brunch. Major credit cards. Prices: appetizers, $3.50-$7.95; entrees, $12.50- $21. **1/2 The Mount Washington Tavern gets no respect. It serves dinners like prime rib, swordfish topped with brie and a veal du jour to hundreds of customers a week. But people insist on categorizing it as a place that specializes in bar food.

Admittedly, the name gives you the impression that this is a tavern rather than a serious restaurant. "But what about the Manor Tavern?" owner Ted Bauer protests when you point this out. "Nobody thinks of it as a bar."

The difference is that when you enter the Mount Washington Tavern, you're greeted by a swinging bar crowd, loud music and the Beer Drinkers Hall of Fame.

Ask to be seated in the Garden room. The hostess will lead you back, past a raw bar, past the bathrooms marked "hen" and "drake," back to a two-story-high, light-filled room painted white where it isn't glass. (Most of it is glass.) Hexagonally shaped, with a decklike level running around its perimeter, the room is unusual and quite appealing. The floor is made of tiny hexagon-shaped tiles in white, black and green.

Plants are everywhere, a profusion of plants, plants in pots, hanging in baskets, sitting on shelves a story up. There's even a real live tree growing through the floor. As dusk settles in and the natural light fades, a waitress brings votive candles to each table.

Now this is a room where serious eaters could enjoy serious food.

Still, if you want serious eaters to take your restaurant seriously, you don't make your nicest dining room the smoking dining room. And it's too bad the Garden has a television and a raucous bar crowd when there's so much space for all that up front.

But give the Mount Washington Tavern credit: It's progressed far beyond the Buffalo wing and nachos stage. I'm not suggesting you can't get wings and nachos here, as well as sandwiches with cute names like Where's the Beef? and Turkey in the Slaw. But there is more on the menu; just keep reading.

You can start, for instance, with tender ravioli stuffed with minced porcini, shiitake and portobello mushrooms, prettily arranged on a bright red tomato sauce. This was the best of our first courses.

A steamed seafood sampler included clams, oysters and mussels and two enormous shrimp, all cooked a bit too long for my taste. The melted butter didn't taste like real butter, and the cocktail sauce was too spicy to eat (possibly a one-time slip).

Clams casino were nicely seasoned, with crisp curls of bacon; but the clams were minuscule.

A cup of black bean soup was inedible -- my guess is that someone dumped too much sherry in it.

All this didn't bode well for what was to come next, but it turned out the kitchen handled our main courses much better than the starters.

Prime rib cabernet was a handsome 12 ounces of full-flavored, well-trimmed beef. The sauce was a combination of the beef's natural juices cooked down a little with red wine. The meat was topped with a saute of mushrooms, artichoke hearts and onions. You'll be glad to get the vegetables, because all that comes with dinner is corn bread (admittedly very good) and your choice of baked potato or green beans. The green beans had been frozen. If you want a salad, it's extra. Made mainly of lettuce and not very interesting lettuce at that, it's not really worth an extra four dollars (OK, $3.95). The house dressing, a red wine vinaigrette, tasted like Catalina.

A special that evening was soft-shell crabs -- meaty, crunchy-skinned and juicy -- sauteed with Cajun spices and served over a tangy-sweet smoked corn and papaya relish. A very fine dish.

A more conventional, but just as good, seafood possibility is the oysters imperial. The oysters were large and tender, and their shells were piled high with lump crab meat in a rich, buttery imperial sauce.

I had a wonderful veal chop -- fat, flavorful and tender -- so good it didn't need any sauce. That was lucky because I didn't like the sauce it came with, a sweet lemon grass and coconut cream concoction that would have been better on a dessert. The promised bed of fettuccine made an appearance as a side dish after I asked what had happened to it.

And speaking of dessert, how about a tuxedo cake that combines a bittersweet chocolate mousse with a sweet white chocolate mousse? Or a warm brownie topped with ice cream, chocolate sauce and whipped cream? The Mount Washington Tavern has all those and more: This wouldn't be a bad place to come for dessert and coffee after a show.

Next: River Watch

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