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Keeping Tabs on Bar Food

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Jean-Louis Palladin of bar food in Baltimore used to be the anonymous cook who made the oversized cheeseburger at Alonso's. But if you think today's bar food is only wings, potato skins and the like, you've got a treat coming. When you're bored with hamburgers, try the grilled portobello mushroom sandwich at the Wild Mushroom or the crab omelet at Jeannier's.

Jeannier's? you say. Isn't that a French restaurant? It is, but it has a bar with a separate menu, more casual and less expensive. And that's what we're really talking about here.

Our definition of bar-restaurants may be a little fuzzy -- that's their nature these days -- and we weren't able to include every bar that serves food in town. But you will find a good selection of old favorites and jazzy newcomers reviewed here, with dishes for almost every taste.

Stars are a rough guide to quality:

**** (the best bar food Maryland has to offer),

*** (good),

** (fair or uneven),

* (poor). Dollar signs suggest cost:

$ inexpensive, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive, $$$$ very expensive.

Alonso's, 415 W. Cold Spring Lane, (410) 235-3433. ** 1/2 $

Baltimoreans go to Alonso's for the challenge; the innocuous-sounding meal in a basket draws sport eaters from far and wide. But the jumbo burger that stars in the meal is perhaps the maximum quantity of beef that can be consumed without causing undue bodily harm.

After a warm-up of spicy buffalo wings with the requisite blue cheese dip and celery sticks, as well as an order of tasty, molten-centered broccoli cheese balls, my companion and I were ready for the main event. I opted for a well-executed fried crab cake sandwich with plank fries. My companion muscled his way through the flavorful jumbo burger cooked medium-well, as ordered, and had room to spare for his fries and pickles.

Dessert is limited to a strawberry-topped cheesecake, but the wide selection of foreign and domestic microbrews makes up for that.--LF

Balls, 200 W. Pratt St., (410) 659-5844. ** $

Sports is the best reason to eat at Balls. Watching a great play on the 10-foot projection screen, it hardly matters that the buffalo wings are lukewarm, the Caesar salad a bit soggy, the corned beef lean but tasteless. This is the place of choice for a lot of sports fans in Baltimore.

Fried foods turned out to be the menu's most valuable players. Jalapeno poppers, full of molten cream cheese, were batter-dipped and fried crisp, as were fat onion rings. Chicken tenders were moist under a light breading. Nothing was greasy.

There are those who judge a sports bar by its burgers. The one we tried was flavorful, though closer to rare than the medium ordered. Don't bother saving room for dessert. When we asked, our hard-working waitress deadpanned, "We don't have dessert. have beer."--KH

Bertha's, Broadway and Lancaster Street, (410) 327-5795. ** 1/2 $$

Bertha's isn't so much known for great mussels as it's known for its bumper sticker: "Eat Bertha's Mussels." The specialty of the house is served with eight different sauces, ranging from melted butter to an anchovy, tomato and garlic butter. The mussels I tried were fresh and plump, and there were plenty of them. But they were also quite gritty.

The authentic pub atmosphere of this Fells Point bar is so appealing I'm willing to overlook a little grit, but I'd be more likely next time to order Bertha's paella, or the fiery crab soup, or the saged chicken livers.

Save room for dessert: coconut-damson plum tart, seasonal mince pie, lemon chess pie and Scottish trifle. Or come here for a Scottish afternoon tea, with homemade savories, scones and dessert tarts. The recipes are from Scotland by way of the owner's mother-in-law.--EL

Bohager's, Eden and Fleet streets, (410) 563-7220.

Through this week Bohager's is still serving its crab deck menu both inside and out. Look for its new fall and winter menu soon, which will feature grilled meats and seafood, light fare and traditional bar food.--EL

Brass Elephant, 924 N. Charles St., (410) 547-8480. *** $

You can always go to the most expensive restaurant in town, order the cheapest entree (split at least two ways), and tell the waiter to keep the water, bread and complimentary mints coming. This is one way to experience opulence without paying a premium. Or, you could just head up to the second floor of the Brass Elephant and order anything off the light-fare menu in the bar.

It's the same stunning setting as the dining room, the same gracious service, and the same kitchen staff preparing intensely flavored pasta dishes, appetizers and more substantial entrees. Start with a scoop of crab dip or a slice of pate de compagne from the free buffet set up in the corner.

Even the most expensive entree here ($12) is a bargain -- a small New York steak napped with a sweet roasted shallot and burgundy sauce and accompanied by spinach and a potato pancake. Desserts are stunning, especially the blueberry-blackberry mint sorbet and the velvety white chocolate coconut flan.--LF

Buddies Pub & Jazz Club, 313 N. Charles St., (410) 332-4200. *** $$

A popular weekday lunch spot that doubles as a jazz club on weekend nights, Buddies is a deceptively good place for dinner, too. Ignore the cigarette burns on the wooden bar and the fact that the narrow room is mostly empty on Saturday at 7 p.m. Who would expect decoratively pared kiwi as a garnish or a house salad with fresh arugula?

The menu, featuring pastas, paninos, club sandwiches and seven entrees, is not exotic, but the kitchen fulfills its promises. The assorted vegetables were fresh and ice-cold in our vegetable and dip appetizer. A half-pound burger -- a house specialty -- was good enough to convert a vegetarian to carnivore, as our bartender bragged. The broccoli quiche was served hot and creamy, but the melted cheese on top was a bit of overkill. An Oreo ice cream pie, courtesy of Ms. Desserts, was the perfect finisher on a hot night. We were surprised just how satisfying a meal at Buddies can be.--PJ

Camden Pub, 647 W. Pratt St., (410) 547-1280. ** $$

It's hard to get in the door here when the Orioles are in town. We visited on an off-Orioles night and had the place to ourselves. That, however, did not lead to any special attention from the waitress, who had to be flagged several times from her bar stool.

Fortunately, there were lots of autographed baseballs, bats and other sports memorabilia to keep us amused. As for the food, the high spots were the fiery blackened chicken stripes that came with a cooling sour-cream-and-salsa dipping sauce and the almost-4-inch-thick club sandwich piled high with turkey and roast beef.

The shrimp salad on kaiser roll, however, was a stingy portion for $6.50. And the four-layer lemon cake and chocolate raspberry cake provided an uninspiring ending.--SL

Charles Village Pub, 19 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Towson, (410) 821-8155. ** $$

Sure it's a sports-bar institution, with three locations and legions of fans, but we couldn't help but feel that the Charles Village Pub had slipped a bit during our visit.

The nachos -- shredded cheese, chili, salsa and jalapeno peppers on a bed of chips -- were satisfyingly gooey and the winner of the night. Close behind were the crisp waffle-cut fries. The tough steak sandwich -- which arrived well-done rather than rare, as requested -- was the bona-fide loser.

The rest of the meal was mediocre: Crab soup was more reminiscent of tomato-vegetable than the Maryland favorite, and there was not a hint of pink in the "medium rare" bacon cheeseburger. Two cheesecakes were our only dessert choices. The Snickers version was too sweet, while the strawberry was overwhelmed by a citrusy tang.--MC

Claddagh Pub, 2918 O'Donnell St., (410) 522-4220. *** $$

Claddagh Pub is part of the current Canton renaissance; any number of good, casual eating spots have opened up there recently. Claddagh is a pleasant little bar-restaurant, fresh and cheerful with a green-and-white color scheme and Irish murals and motifs.

The kitchen is capable of producing dishes beyond bar food, such as a delicate cream of crab soup spangled with parsley, the flavor of the sweet cream setting off the flakes of white crab meat.

Still, simplest is best. The specialty of the house is grilled meat, like the flavorful T-bone that's often a special and the fat, meaty lamb chops. Order the superb mashed potatoes on the side. This is simple food done well -- a restaurant that knows its limitations and doesn't stray beyond them.--EL

Clyde's, 10221 Wincopin Circle, Columbia, (410) 730-2828. * 1/2 $$$

There's no denying Clyde's popularity as a Columbia gathering spot, but after having eaten there, there's no understanding it either. Our meal there can be summed up in a word: bland.

The potato-skins appetizer consisted of too much potato and limp skin, with gloppy Cheddar melted over bacon. The stuffed portobello mushroom looked promising on the menu, but the spinach-based stuffing was lifeless, and even the mushroom seemed flavorless.

The entrees were no more inspiring. Prince Edward Island scallops were rubbery and topped by a peach salsa that was billed as "fiery" but tasted as if it could have come from Gerber's. The New York strip steak was so lifeless we almost asked for steak less we almost asked for steak sauce. And a child's hamburger, ordered well-done, came medium-rare. Desserts, a tasty Key lime pie and an excellent peach bread pudding, came too late to salvage a dismal meal.--M&SD;

Country Fare Inn, 808 Westminster Road, Reisterstown, (410) 363-3131. *** $$1/2

Don't worry about the name. Yes, Fiori's went to Country Fare's location, and now Country Fare's gone to Fiori's. All you need to know is, this is the old, old house on Westminster Road, not the old, old house near Owings Mills. It's always been very pleasant, and still is.

Sipping Sam Adams and Bass ales, we proclaimed brilliant our lean-fried calamari served in a creamy tomato dipping sauce. Any time of year, those, please. A lightly dressed Caesar salad was good, too, with real garlic.

Our sandwiches were a rather small crab cake (for $8.95) and a tasty blackened chicken breast, served with good french fries. Sandwich buns don't seem to get buttered these days -- I miss the luxury -- but the bread was tasty and good-sized. By contrast, a plate of vegetable rigatoni struck us as pallid, needing a serious tomato sauce to be worthwhile. Don't leave without big spoonfuls of frozen hazelnut souffle. Great stuff.--JB

The Crease, 523 York Road, Towson, (410) 823-0395. ** $

In lacrosse, the crease refers to the area surrounding the goal. And in a town as ardent about lacrosse as this one, the Crease is the perfect spot from which to rehash the most recent Hopkins, Towson State or club lacrosse game.

Although the Crease certainly qualifies as a sports bar -- two televisions are tuned to the game du jour -- there is very little sports memorabilia in evidence. Instead, historic photos line the walls.

The Crease's appetizer combo is an appealing starter for those willing to brave a little cholesterol. Two molten-cheese-centered jalapeno poppers, a pair of pedestrian potato skins, twin mozzarella sticks and a couple of chicken fingers all vie for center stage. The garden salad might also be a nice opener if the lettuce leaves were selected more judiciously. A broiled crab cake sandwich is well priced and just a little lean on crab meat, and the Coney Island dog, heaped with piquant sauerkraut, is a festive, messy meal. Desserts appear to be an afterthought, however, with a slightly stale cannoli topping the list.--LF

Dougherty's, 223 W. Chase St., (410) 752-4059. ** $$

There's lots of green decor here. But that's to be expected in a place that's run by the owner of the now-closed Irish Pub. The new establishment, though, features all-American food with nibbles like tasty, herb-crusted zucchini sticks and plump but unexciting onion rings. Condiments are at your fingertips on the bare, green tile tables that are nicely spaced throughout the room.

We had a great burger here with fried ham. But the grilled ham and cheese sandwich was a little overbearing with the gooey cheese. The usual ridged chips and pickles accompanied the food.

If you must have dessert, try the surprisingly tasty rice pudding. Ignore the bland apple pie.--SL

Edgar's Billiards Club, 1 E. Pratt St., (410) 752-8080. ** 1/2 $$

I always thought dinner in a pool hall amounted to a bag of chips. Dinner in a billiards club, we were happy to discover at Edgar's, is a bird of a different color -- a black raven, to be precise, at this bar named for Baltimore's muse of gloom, Edgar Allan Poe.

Grateful for something different, we ordered pot stickers stuffed with peppery chopped pork. Good. Creamy artichoke dip was also a hit, except we'd have preferred denser bread than what was served.

Bread problems continued with a dry kaiser roll that dimmed a sandwich of roast turkey and tarragon mustard. Kudos for ambrosia-like slaw, though, and cheesy vegetable lasagna in a sweet, chunky sauce. Chocolate mousse cake seemed thickened with gelatin, but lemon meringue pie was refreshingly tart, with a not-too-stiff topping.--KH

Fat Lulu's, 1818 Maryland Ave., (410) 685-4665. ** 1/2 $$

Here a little over a year where a music club called the Rev used to be, Fat Lulu's is turning out some stellar blues and jazz performances upstairs and a fine menu of Cajun/Creole food downstairs in the tiny dining room.

Chicken or shrimp gumbo are pleasant starters, both with a zesty broth crowded with okra, rice, carrots, scallions and the like. The accompanying corn bread is delicious. My favorite dish remains the red beans and rice. At dinner, the smoky beans and dirty rice are redolent of spicy sausage and ham and garnished with a gargantuan, glistening ham hock. But one evening's special of a savory crawfish pot pie in a silky cream sauce with a golden, buttery crust came perilously close to winning top honors.

Since the restaurant's opening, dessert options have taken a number of turns, from Russian-style fruit pies to the current decadent mocha cheesecake and demure lemon cream cake.--LF

N Fins Bar & Grill, 2318 Fleet St., (410) 732-3467. ** 1/2 $$1/2

Fins, just south of Eastern Avenue's Greek Orthodox Church and Greek-owned, feels Caribbean, what with jalousies, pretty painted parrots on perches, a bathing-suited mannequin in a hammock, and a stuffed monkey in a palm tree. They say the theme is Jimmy Buffett. To us uninitiated, that meant tall cold beers and gorgeous "killer" shrimp sauced with tomatoes and who-knows-what-but-it-was-good.

What was also good included Fins' black bean soup with sour cream (but hold some of the salt). Four dry coconut shrimp were invisible under coconut batter, and expensive at $7.95. A hamburger? Dull. Caesar salad? Goopy. Maryland crab cake? Too salty. Marinated tuna topped with cantaloupe salsa was simple and pleasant, but outclassed by terrific garlic mashed potatoes to the side.

Desserts tasted fresh -- a faintly lime cheesecake and "chocolate brownies with ice cream" (more like chocolate bread, we thought). Decor, parrots, shrimp, soup and potatoes are what I'll remember.--JB

Frazier's Restaurant & Tap Room, 857 W. 33rd St., (410) 889-1143. ** $$

You could cruise slowly through Hampden all evening and never happen upon Frazier's. Here's a hint: From the front it looks just like every other rowhouse on the block, but from the side one will quickly notice a half-dozen picnic tables crammed with families enjoying a little alfresco repast, and a single black cat resolutely waiting for human beneficence.

Frazier's has been in this spot for many decades, serving wholesome meat and seafood dishes alongside icy draft beers. Appetizers run the gamut from fried shrimp to a serviceable house salad. One evening's special of two soft-shell crabs came on buttery toast with side orders of sweet stewed tomatoes and french fries. While the fries were a bit anemic and the soft-shells too small, it was a satisfying meal for a breezy, warm evening. The baby back ribs were less enjoyable, with little smoky flavor and an overly sweet sauce.

When it came time for dessert, we gallantly opted for the delicious carrot cake that our waitress revealed she had made herself.--LF

Gampy's, 904 N. Charles St., (410) 837-9797. ** $$

It's easy to make a dining faux pas at Gampy's, which bills itself as the Great American Melting Pot. The menu is so huge, you can get flustered, as we did, and put together a starter course of Bongo Bongo soup, a sour South Seas spinach concoction, and sweet potato fries with maple syrup. This is not advisable.

The problem is, while there's lots on the menu, none of it seems particularly new or exciting. In the wake of fusion cuisine, fajitas and fondue seem sort of passe, and renditions here appear Americanized, not authentic. Oh, right. The concept is melting pot, after all.

That said, the place is fun and draws a diverse crowd. Good menu picks are dry-rubbed ribs, tender and spicy; creamy cole slaw; fresh salad with sprouts and chickpeas; and a tall and moist carrot cake.--KH

Griffins, 22 Market Space, Annapolis, (410) 268-2576. *** $$

Griffins has the feel of a well-oiled machine. The service staff wears the wide, practiced smile of beauty-pageant contestants or waiters accustomed to braving hordes of revelers. Griffins is right on the water in the touristy part of Annapolis and has a huge and well- appointed bar and a charming dining room.

Appetizers are not of the pub-grub variety. The hot crab dip is rich and crabby, served with hunks of baguette, and the smoked fish appetizer is a smorgasbord of fresh veggies, peppered mackerel, smoked trout and salmon.

Entrees include a lot of the usual suspects -- a hearty French dip sandwich and grilled chicken Caesar salad -- as well as a daily list of exceptional pastas and seafood dishes. Flounder Chesapeake was an ineffably tender fillet, topped with crab meat, steamed shrimp and a lemony bearnaise sauce. The lobster and bay scallop saute proved to be a tangle of pasta cloaked in a flavorful cream sauce with chunks of fresh seafood. Desserts are not to be missed, especially the Key lime pie.--LF

Gypsy's Cafe, 1101 Hollins St., (410) 625-9310. *** $$

Here's the place to come when you're in the mood for a beer and a bite, but looking for something more charming than buffalo wings and big-screen television. Gypsy's is a funky little treasure across from the Hollins Street Market; its food is creative and its beer list runs to nearly 100 microbrews.

Swaths of gold, turquoise and purple fabric are draped across a bar that's lighted with fairy lights. Against the walls are little tables decorated with flowers and leaves pressed under glass tops.

The round of baked brie made an excellent beginning. A good-sized portion, it came with almonds, fresh strawberries and slices of both cantaloupe and French bread. While the lentil soup lacked seasoning, the salmon sesame soy entree was fine, moist and delicately flavored. The Black-n-Blue Catfish, a grilled fillet topped with blue cheese and served on a kaiser roll, was a tasty alternative to the conventional bar burger. The peach pie was overly sweet to our taste, but the cannoli was a fine finish.--CC

Henninger's Ale House, 1812 Bank St., (410) 342-2172. *** 1/2 $$$

With its pretty decor and old pictures hanging on textured walls, this bar/restaurant in two converted townhouses feels like a place from another time. But the food is very au courant and very good.

You could start with lobster bisque, small chunks of lobster bathed in a creamy, sherry-kissed broth, but the Texas barbecued shrimp wrapped in bacon make a tasty beginning, too. Grilled tuna, served with an exceptional salsa, was perfectly rendered and impeccably fresh. Also delicious was a baked chicken breast stuffed with spinach, port salut cheese and shrimp in a tomato cream herb sauce.

The menu advised us to "live a little" with dessert, but the lemon cheesecake was just too much living -- too cheesy and not very lemony. The poached pear in Jack Daniel's was a little hard, but its sauce was delicious.--M&SD;

Hooters, Light Street Pavilion, Harborplace, (410) 244-0367. ** $$

The attraction here is the sophomoric humor, reflected by a menu that calls its seafood salad "high quality concrete and stucco patching material," and young waitresses clad in short shorts and T-shirts tied to expose midriffs and accentuate cleavage.

"Hooters," get it? If you like that kind of entertainment, come on down. If you don't, the quality of the food probably won't persuade you to journey here. At best, the cuisine is mediocre. Chicken wings, available in variations of spiciness, were tasty but greasy. The iceberg-laden house salad was fine. A "medium" burger was overcooked. The "Jackeroo" ribs were flavorful but chewy. Curly fries were as good as curly fries can be.

If the weather is pleasant, sit outside; the view from the balcony is terrific. No desserts on this menu. The waitress suggested we try the Haagen-Dazs stand next door.--PJ

Hull Street Blues, 1222 Hull St., (410) 727-7476. **1/2 $$

Upscale food is served on the restaurant side of Hull Street Blues, but it's possible to sample appetizer specials while sitting at a metal-topped table in the bar. We loved both we tried: tiny mussels with slivers of kalamata olives, garlic and fresh basil, and thick lima bean soup cooked from scratch.

Sandwiches make up the bulk of the bar menu. Shrimp salad was full of whole shrimp in a slightly spicy dressing. The hot roast beef was tender and sliced impossibly thin. On stale kaiser rolls, though, the net effect was diminished.

There are prints of tall ships on the walls, great microbrews on tap and desserts like Mom would make if she could turn out a moist apple cake with cinnamon and a custardlike rice pudding with a spoon of fresh whipped cream.--KH

Jeannier's, Broadview Apartments, 105 W. 39th St., (410) 889-3303. ***1/2 $$

There is bar food, and then there is bar food. Jeannier's serves the second kind. The first kind is nachos and wings and burgers with fries. The other is onion soup gratinee made with a delicious homemade broth, crab omelets and a sirloin steak sandwich on baguette.

Jeannier's, a somewhat formal French restaurant, serves a separate and more casual menu in the area where the bar is. It's short, and just about everything on it is under $10. Soups are homemade, hearty and delicious. Specials like a soft crab sandwich in season can be spectacular. Be warned, though, that most of the specials can run the bill up.

Ignore the pastry tray and ask what the homemade desserts are that day. They might include, for instance, ice cream in an almond tuile cookie with fresh raspberries and raspberry mousse. How's that for bar food?--EL

Jerry's Belvedere Tavern, 5928 York Road, (410) 435-8600. ** $

If you were to draw a circle around the college campuses of Loyola, Johns Hopkins, Towson State and Notre Dame, at the center of that circle would be Belvedere Square. So it's no wonder that Jerry's Belvedere Tavern has the allure of a college town bar and grill.

On two separate occasions, the dining room seemed to be dotted with parents taking their college-student kids out for a meal. The dead giveaway is the pace and gusto with which these young adults tuck into huge plates of Jerry's food -- this is life-sustaining food, not to be confused with school-cafeteria food.

There are spaghetti and meat sauce, Reuben and hot turkey sandwiches, and shrimp salad platters, all marked by straightforward preparations. Cheesecake, rice pudding and a goopy peanut butter pie offer all the dessert charms of home.--LF

Jilly's, 10030 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, (410) 461-3093. ** 1/2 $$

With all the neon, sports memorabilia and Marilyn Monroe stuff tossed around Jilly's, this place was an assault on the eyes.

Given the decor, we expected food selections such as salsa burger quiche. Fortunately, Jilly's serves pretty standard bar food, and much of it is good. The star of the appetizers was the "O blossom," a full onion cut to look like a blossoming flower, then batter-dipped and deep-fried. The "O" was both clever and excellent, and a horseradish-Russian dressing for dipping served well.

At dinner, a rack of ribs turned out to be a 1-pound slab of meat in a tangy, homemade barbecue sauce. The crab cake platter came with great fries, but the crab cake wasn't lump meat, and had lots of filler and a high shell ratio. Jilly's serves an adequate cheesecake, but the warm bread pudding with Amaretto sauce was a standout -- homey, rich and soft in the mouth.--M&SD;

N John Steven Ltd., 1800 Thames St., (410) 327-5561. **1/2 $$

Fells Point has always suffered a happy, riotous glut of places where one can hang out and drink a beer. John Steven Ltd. is still the happiest and most riotous of the bunch. And chef Alison Dugdale has ensured that patrons have lots of appealing possibilities to complement that icy pint.

The best dishes still seem to be the simple noshes -- jumbo steamed shrimp or mussels and Original Ed's American sushi rolls. On a recent evening, pints of DeGroen's Marzen preceded a bowl of Maryland crab soup -- marred by a preponderance of empty crab shells -- and a huge green salad dotted with little, fresh mozzarella balls.

Entrees seem more ambitious, with a spicy Creole meat and seafood brochette topping the evening's list. But the juicy house burger also deserves kudos. Desserts include a subtle White Russian cheesecake and a homey Louisiana bread pudding with rum sauce.--LF

Kent Lounge, 506 York Road, Towson, (410) 825-2650. ** $

This is a long-standing bar right in the thick of things in Towson. With so many newer dining options within walking distance, one may balk at the idea of consuming a meal here. But Kent Lounge is a perfectly enjoyable neighborhood bar, with chummy regulars and a friendly staff.

Drinks are cheap, and the menu is homey and familiar. Crab balls are hot and flavorful, but served with a cloyingly sweet honey mustard. One night's chicken noodle soup was not overly salty and had plenty of wide egg noodles crowding the broth. A special of grilled tuna on Spanish rice proved tough and bland, though, and a hot turkey sandwich, "a Kent Lounge tradition," was gooey with canned-tasting gravy. Desserts include an apple pie with thick chunks of sweet apple and a nicely flaky crust.--LF

McCabe's, 3845 Falls Road, (410) 467-1000. *** $$

You get the best of both worlds at McCabe's: good bar food and good home cooking. Most everything is made from scratch. This is straightforward American food -- lots of sandwiches and salads, a few platters.

McCabe's hamburger is as good as you'll get in Baltimore. It's not a monster -- so big it's not appetizing -- but the beef is lean and flavorful and the kaiser roll is fresh. On the side: hand-cut, crisp, lightly seasoned french fries.

You might start your meal with shrimp Licato, with fresh mushrooms in a light cream sauce tinged with Pernod. Otherwise, it's buffalo wings, steamed shrimp or mussels or jalapeno poppers. Soups, like the creamy chowder chock full of clams, are excellent. And McCabe's has fine crab cakes, even though they aren't made with lump crab meat. But just to prove that homemade isn't always better, the coleslaw that came with the crab cakes was dreadful: sweet and tasteless.--EL

McGarvey's Saloon and Oyster Bar, 8 Market Space, Annapolis, (410) 263-5700. *** $$$

A tree grows in McGarvey's -- literally. It's a bit jarring for an old tavern on the Annapolis dock, but at least there are no ferns.

The food here is imaginative and well-prepared. Steamed spiced shrimp came extra tangy and far too tasty in their own juice to drown in cocktail sauce. The baked Mediterranean pita was a brilliant appetizer: a kind of Syrian mini-pizza adorned with Bermuda onion, green pepper, black olives, tomatoes and melted feta cheese.

Swordfish is a treacherous dish even for white-tablecloth restaurants, but this bar kitchen managed to nail the grilled swordfish steak. It was fully cooked yet still moist. The filet bearnaise sandwich was tasty on an English muffin, but why add bean sprouts? The dessert course brought a highlight in the decadent Snickers cheesecake, but the Key lime pie lacked the limey bite of the best versions.--MS&D;

Marmaduke's, 301 Severn Ave., Annapolis, (410) 269-5420. ** 1/2 $$1/2

Lots of places try to look nautical. Marmaduke's just is, right down to the sailing championship plaques and racing models on the walls. There's even a glass panel celebrating heroes of the water, from Magellan to Slocum.

Judging from the blackened chicken tenders we tried, bar fare is better than usual here. Plump, juicy and seasoned just right, the tenders disappeared as quickly as five delicious walnut-sized crab balls.

It's no surprise to find lots of fish specials at Marmaduke's. Sauteed grouper Provencal and soft-shell crabs served on toast were done simply and well, though both were cooked a bit too long. The only real problem was spotty service. It's hard to run a race with inexperienced deck hands, and it's hard to run a restaurant with them, too.--KH

Mencken's Cultured Pearl Cafe, 1114 Hollins St., (410) 837-1947. *** $$

Like its namesake, Mencken's hates pretense but loves heat. This is a shrine to Tex-Mex heat, with small racks of sauces available for true believers.

Quesadillas and a bowl of meaty, spicy chili started us off. The quesadillas were warm and gooey and came with a good side of guacamole and sour cream. The chili, quite simply, was bliss. After that great buildup, the house special "SOWEBO Burrito" (Southwest Baltimore burrito) was quite a letdown. It was huge and bland, even with various hot sauces.

Two plump enchiladas, one beef and one vegetable, brought the zest back to our meal. And sopaipillas -- dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar, and served with honey for dipping -- were a grand finale.--M&SD;

Michael's Cafe, Raw Bar and Grill, 2119 York Road, Timonium, (410) 252-2022. *** $$

With at least three big-screen television screens tuned to sporting events, and football, baseball and boxing memorabilia decorating every nook and cranny, the theme of the bar announces itself the minute you walk through the door.

If you're looking for quiet conversation, the dining room is your best bet. But keep in mind that the bar, though sometimes raucous, has a terrific selection of seafood and first-rate service.

The jumbo lump crab cake couldn't have been better; the filler was minimal and the cake was broiled to perfection. The Steamer Special, a pile of clams, oysters, crawfish and mussels, was another winner. Non-seafood eaters can choose from a long list that includes everything from filet mignon to a baked ham and Swiss sandwich. And while there is a decent variety of desserts, none of our selections was memorable.--CC

Midtown Yacht Club, 15 E. Centre St., (410) 837-1300. **1/2 $$

Some things in life you can count on. The Midtown Yacht Club is one of them. Go there if you want free peanuts, great music, cold beer and decent food.

The gumbo is a thick, hearty delight -- every spoonful loaded with vegetables and seafood. The chicken wings are meaty and tender -- but more fiery than our taste buds could take. The open-faced roast beef sandwich with french fries and gravy is not for the cholesterol-conscious. And the burger is definitely a two-fisted thing.

Service is on the laid back side here: Our waitress said she was doubling as the chef that night, which explained her long absences. But the Midtown Yacht Club is far from pretentious, so who were we to complain?--MC

Mount Vernon Stable and Saloon, 909 N. Charles St., (410) 685-7427. *** $$

The ribs here are superb. Bathed in a deliciously balanced sauce, they're fall-off-the-bone tender and consistently good visit after visit.

If you're not a regular who knows what great food lies ahead, however, the initial look of the place can be daunting. The dining area upstairs has some charming posters and knickknacks, but the bar area downstairs looks a little threadbare.

It's the food that keeps the customers coming. In addition to the exceptional ribs, quesadillas are a favorite here. The one we tried was a pleasing mixture of refried beans, turkey and mixed cheeses. Our hefty bacon cheeseburger was tender and juicy. The only disappointment: a bland pasta dish that tossed together linguine, tomatoes, shrimp, scallops, basil and prosciutto. Desserts here are wonderful. Our favorites were the blackbottom cheese cake and a very deep chocolate Irish whiskey cake.--CC

Mount Washington Tavern, 5700 Newbury St., (410) 367-6903. **1/2 $$1/2

The Mount Washington Tavern 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. That's not surprising: When you enter, you're greeted by a swinging bar crowd, loud music and the Beer Drinkers Hall of Fame.

You can 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. Start with tender ravioli stuffed with wild mushrooms or clams casino. Feast on prime rib cabernet or the oysters imperial. But don't expect perfection once you venture beyond the wings and burgers -- a cup of black bean soup was dreadful, the green beans were frozen, and the sweet lemon grass and coconut cream sauce with the veal chop would have been better on dessert.--EL

Mum's Grill, 136 Dock St., Annapolis, (410) 269-6656. ***1/2 $$1/2

If you're lucky enough, you'll snag one of the front tables by the windows as we did. They're the perfect perch for eyeing Annapolitans and tourists strolling around the City Dock.

But even if you sit in the back, you'll have great food to look forward to. The cream of crab soup laden with crab lumps seduced us with its gustatory charms. And the baker's dozen of large steamed shrimp was a pleasantly messy feast.

The Caesar salad with grilled tuna steak was fresh and piquant. Our only disappointment was the poor, thin, blah crab cake. Desserts are a must here. The homemade Key lime pie and hot apple pie full of plump fruit wooed us impressively.--SL

Nacho Mama's, 2907 O'Donnell St., (410) 675-0898. **1/2 $

The neighborhood of Canton is bursting its seams with fun and affordable bars-cum-restaurants, and at the top of my list is Nacho Mama's. The sangria is zesty, the margaritas are powerful and the service is as friendly as it gets.

The restaurant itself is warm and cheerful, with lots of whimsical touches. Hot tortilla chips are served in hubcaps and the walls are festooned with vintage Natty Boh memorabilia.

The food suffers from a bit of inconsistency, which we magnanimously ignore because we just like the place. The house salsa leaves a pleasant slow burn, and the guacamole is fresh and obviously house-made. On one of our visits, enchiladas napped in a spicy mole sauce were excellent, while on another, vegetable fajitas were bland and a little mushy. Desserts include a silky margarita cheesecake and a nice flan.--LF

Ocean Pride, 1534 York Road, Lutherville, (410) 321-7744. **1/2 $$

This narrow bar can be jam-packed and claustrophobic when crowds gather here to wait for tables in the dining room. But we managed to snag two stools before the frenzy started.

Of course, we did have to endure hostile stares as we continued to order quite a bit of food while occupying the chairs desired by those wanting simply to drink.

Still, we were able to savor a plateful of spicy steamed shrimp and chilled, shucked-as-you-watch oysters. We weren't quite as pleased with the Maryland crab soup and a crab cake. The soup was watery and the crab cake mayonnaisey. But the traditional, triple-decker club sandwich was a hit.

We also were thankful we could order a take-home dessert at the restaurant's attached carryout. I'm certain that the bar patrons would have staged a coup if we had dallied over the luscious cheesecake on those stools.--SL

Olney Ale House, 2000 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, (301) 774-6708. ***1/2 $

There's tahini in the dressing and fresh flowers on the table, but make no mistake: This is a bar.

What you'll find at this wayside tavern in northern Montgomery County is delicious homemade bread with tasty spreads, a spicy vegetarian chili even a carnivore can love, and a fine selection of microbrews. Entrees were more hearty than arty. Ale House Stew came heaped in its bowl, but there wasn't much beef in it and the broth was a little soupy. The thick slab of salmon fillet with a wine dill sauce was well-prepared, but no fresher than grocery-store standard. Accompanying fries pleased the potato-head in our group.

Desserts were properly decadent: a spicy apple-caramel pie and a creamy chocolate fantasy fudge cake.--M&SD;

Owl Bar, the Belvedere, 1 E. Chase St., (410) 347-0888. *** $$$

If your idea of bar food is crispy fried calamari and chic pizzas instead of nachos and fries, then you owe yourself a visit to the Owl Bar. The Baltimore landmark is now both old and new. There's the same charming interior -- handsome oak bar, brick walls and stained-glass panels -- but since its food started coming out of Champagne Tony's kitchen, the Owl Bar has been serving inventive Italian food rather than bar standards.

The chef pays attention to presentation here. The pasta Julia -- fusilli with wild mushrooms, onion, garlic and tomato -- was finished off with an artful confetti of herbs. The roasted chicken with veal stuffing was a fanciful thing, the bird with its crispy brown skin resting on the plate, sprigs of herbs by its side like plumes.

The best is indeed saved for last. The chocolate custard cup managed to be both rich and light. It was surpassed only by the delightful apple bread pudding finished with a caramel sauce.--MC

Padonia Station, Padonia Village Shopping Center, York and Padonia roads, (410) 252-8181. **1/2 $$

You want wings? Do we have wings for you. From teriyaki to honey mustard and beyond. Not hot enough for you? How about Nuclear Wings (extra cayenne powder)? Or Wings From Hell (the original recipe laced with diced jalapeno peppers)?

Padonia Station has so many different wing flavors we felt guilty ordering just the original. But they are very fine wings, meaty with just the right edge of spice and a vinegary bite. OK, wings aren't your thing. Well, whatever is your thing, Padonia Station probably has it on its huge menu. This looks like just another bar-restaurant, and the offerings do tend to be casual food; but you'll also find crab cakes, steak dinners, chicken stir-fries and // several pastas.

The food is uneven. Steamed oysters, crab soup and a shrimp salad platter were good, but a tuna melt disappointed, ribs had little smoky flavor, and fries were pale and soft. Oh, well. You could make a very decent meal on wings and potato skins loaded with melted cheese and bacon.--EL

Pargo's, 6700 Security Blvd., (410) 944-4020. *** $$

Pargo's could be a synonym for fresh food and fun. Festive streamers dangle from the air vents and a black-and-white stuffed tiger sits on a perch above the bar.

It's a great place to order a libation and hunker down with the addictive con queso dip and homemade tortilla chips. My sister and I couldn't help but double-dip into the fiery, melted pepper Jack cheese.

We also did justice to the crispy chicken appetizer served with rosemary-dusted fries and a wonderful pineapple marmalade-horseradish sauce. The kitchen also puts a new spin on some standard offerings -- the club sandwich was grilled and the BLT was turned into a salad. Eat well but save room for dessert. The berries and cream, and six-layer -- really -- chocolate mousse cake are worth the calories.--SL

Parrot Island, 701 S. Eden St., (410) 522-1000. **1/2 $$

Baltimore has never seen anything like this before: a Caribbean complex with thatched-roof hut, palm trees, tiki torches, mega-bar and open-air pavilion where you can get casual fare with a few haute touches. It looks like something out of Disney's Adventureland.

The music from the bar is so loud you won't be able to hold a conversation. Just sit back and enjoy the quesadillas or the pulled pork sandwich, a fat hamburger or a lobster salad, and for dessert, a fabulous hot chocolate pudding that tastes like a fallen souffle.

If you want something more substantial, Parrot Island offers a few entrees like a tenderloin brochette with tender chunks of filet mignon.

Think it all ends when the weather turns cold? Not at all, promised our hostess. "They're going to cover [the pavilion] with a tent."--EL

Peter's Inn, 504 S. Ann St., (410) 675-7313. *** $1/2

Peter's Inn is no inn. It's small, strong on window grills, and all Crayola red outside. Inside, I wondered where we'd sit. At the big wood bar, or at one of the five tables under the biker photos or by the picture of Pete the owner shooting a gun off his porch. We chose the bar, to hear Pete tell about Greece.

Chef Karin Fuller took our order, cooked what we wanted and served it, too. We had a likable peppery summer squash soup, then cheese tortellini brought to life with sun-dried tomatoes, Parmesan and prosciutto. Also, watercress and garlic heaped over a delicious chicken breast.

Both our entrees included a fresh, lightly dressed salad to the side and big chunks of herbed garlic bread. Dessert was an unpeeled poached pear (not a charmer). Bring cash.--JB

Peters Pour House, Water and Grant streets, (410) 539-5818. ** 1/2 $

In warm weather, tables are set up outside this brick tavern. They're shaded both by downtown office buildings and umbrellas. Is this picturesque scene San Francisco? Seattle? Step inside and you'll know it's Baltimore, from the smell of Old Bay and shrimp coming from the steamer next to the massive wooden bar.

Peters, which only serves lunch, turns out an excellent hand-formed burger, and a very good crab cake special. Salads are fresh and large, made with iceberg lettuce and commercial ** dressings. Try the Caesar as a dipping sauce for mozzarella sticks, instead of honey mustard. Stick to the basics, though. Chicken teriyaki with mushy beans and bitter pilaf is probably not ordered a lot by the lunch crowd, and the chef's unsure hand with it shows.

Attentive service and reasonable prices make Peters a good choice for a business lunch.--KH

N Pickles Pub, 520 Washington Blvd., (410) 752-1784. ** $$1/2

On a quiet, team's-out-of-town evening, we stared across at the Orioles' stadium from our stools at Pickles' bar. Quiet? By 7:30 the place was jumping, with big athletic bodies and big athletic voices inside, their motorcycles and sports cars parked at the curb. Fans feeding a habit? Local Pickles' addicts? Who cares. Eat.

Tasty introductory nibbles made a good counterpoint to beer. Pickles calls them "appe-teasers" -- things like nachos with chili and cheese, plus a cache of hot peppers to detonate the taste buds. The olives, the beans, the tomato sauce, the generous goopiness mixed with crisp nachos made it sure-fire. Ditto, chicken wings with blue cheese dip. "Wings" meant wings and legs, with lots of meat to sink our teeth into.

Main course food was less Pickles' forte. A hamburger, even coated with barbecue sauce, tasted ho-hum (pass the salt!); steamed shrimp should have been firmer, could have been jazzier. And skip the cheesecakes. Ours weren't worth the guilt.--JB

The Red Star, 906 S. Wolfe St., (410) 327-2212. *** $$

With the Red Star's young and hip Fells Point crowd, you'd better be prepared for a loud evening if you choose to eat at the bar. With that caveat, Tex-Mex lovers will find much to love here. Southwestern cooking is more than just grilled fajitas -- although our chicken fajita was quite good. The real jewels are the daily specials, like broiled rockfish with papaya salsa or eggplant-pecan enchilada with roasted red pepper sauce. Who knew that eggplant worked so well with pecans and cilantro?

This can also be a great place for simple fare, like the hot artichoke dip and a tasty house salad with toasted almonds, strawberries and blueberries and a tangy raspberry vinaigrette.

We would quibble with a few things -- stale crackers and dull guacamole come to mind. But desserts like the Snicker Smash, a decadent mousse pie based on the candy bar, and the orangy Creamsicle cheesecake were heavenly.--PJ

Regi's, 1002 Light St., (410) 539-7344. **1/2 $$

Along the lines of if it ain't broke, don't fix it, the new Regi's isn't radically different from the old Regi's. After former owner Regi Elion sold her popular Federal Hill bar last winter, it was renovated and some new dishes were added to the menu. But nothing was done that would upset the regulars.

This self-styled "American bistro" has a sleek new look, but the food is still casual fare done with some flair. True, the pot stickers were greasy; the potato, leek and fennel soup tasted like liquid licorice; and the chicken satay was dry. But we ended up happy with jerk chicken on penne and Rick's Texas quesadillas, filled with melted cheeses, "cilantro pesto" and chopped tomatoes, then char-grilled so they had an enticing smoky edge.

Regi's treats dessert with more respect than many bar-restaurants do. No, there isn't a pastry chef back in the kitchen. But the pies and cakes do come from a good bakery, and they are fresh.--EL

Riordan's, 26 Market Space, Annapolis, (410) 263-5449. *1/2 $$$

It's a great location, across from the market in Annapolis, and in sight of the docks. The trouble is, when you have a captive audience, maybe you don't have to work so hard.

Riordan's may be good for a "quick fix" -- a beer, a glass of wine, some crawfish -- but a good meal is not what it's about. Should a Manhattan seafood chowder have more bits of chicken in it than clams or fish? Does it make sense to serve tartar sauce with soft-shelled crabs already saturated with buttery oils? Paella tasted as if it had been made many hours before. Our one success was crawfish -- fun finger food.

The menu described desserts as "home-style." Ah, depends on the home. Chocolate thunder cake tasted of factory ingredients, pretend whipped cream and cheap chocolate syrup. Strawberry shortcake was not strawberry shortcake.--JB

Sisson's, 36 E. Cross St., (410) 539-2093. ***1/2 $$

Contemplating the slow burn on my tongue from a chewy bit of tasso, I thought, "Can bar food get much better than this?" The answer came with a cooling sip of Sisson's raspberry wheat beer. No.

We sat in the brick-walled "light fare" room next to the bar and sampled Cajun and Creole specialties such as a velvet-smooth gumbo and a skewer of bacon-wrapped shrimp in tangy-sweet hot sauce. Bon. The andouille po boy was massive and delicious. Jambalaya salad, with orzo, shrimp and blackened chicken, was a Cajun romp of tastes -- spicy tasso, cool buttermilk, warm chicken, juicy tomato.

Pecans turned up in the salad, on moist bread pudding and, of course ,in the bourbon pecan pie, a dessert with such deep, adult flavor, we savored each forkful. This place cares about details, right down to its seamless service.--KH

Sliders Bar & Grill, 504 Washington Blvd., (410) 547-8891. *1/2 $

On home-game days, it goes without saying that Sliders is awash in O's enthusiasm and revelry. Just a wild pitch from Camden Yards, it's a little neighborhood bar with a few tables set up along one wall. When the Birds aren't playing, the bar can be raucous with regulars or eerily empty, as it was on our visit during baseball season.

The menu choices were limited. Mozzarella sticks were hot, cheesy and fried in oil that might have played host to too many frying foods. The day's special sandwich, beef barbecue, was served on a strangely wrinkled soft roll and accompanied by chips, a simple potato salad and a desiccated pickle. Another sandwich of turkey and Swiss on rye bread suffered from a super-abundance of yellow mustard but was otherwise pleasant. desserts were available.--LF

Souris' Saloon, 537 York Road, Towson, (410) 296-1997. ** $$

With a beer in one hand and a chunk of fried "blooming onion" in the other, we didn't think happy hour could get much happier than an evening at this 61-year-old Towson institution. With its art deco stylings and long wooden bar, Souris' is trendy and comfortable. It's also a good bargain for light eating.

A terrific lineup of appetizers features a fried combo platter with zucchini sticks, chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks and stuffed jalapenos. The more adventurous should try a generous helping of jerk chicken, a meal in itself for $6.25.

Alas, dinner entrees were not as successful. The bartender-recommended New York strip steak was thin and dry, the accompanying baked potato dreadful. The swordfish steak was cooked correctly but lacked seasoning. Better marks to desserts like "the ultimate brownie," an irresistible chocolate and ice cream concoction big enough for two, and a thick slice of creamy cheesecake. The food can be fun here, but stick to

starters, burgers and sandwiches.--PJ

Thames Street Tavern, 1702 Thames St., (410) 563-5423. ** 1/2 $$

If you arrive late on a night when the twentysomethings are out in full force, forget about dinner conversation -- unless you've brought a megaphone. And forget about seeing your waitress more than once every 20 minutes. She'll be too busy delivering beer to surrounding patrons.

Let people-watching be your entertainment during the waits, and enjoy a meal that turns out to be better than the limited menu might lead you to expect. The potato skins were standouts here -- crispy cups of hollowed-out potato loaded with bacon and Cheddar cheese. We'd also return for another cup of the hearty crab soup. And the crab cake was a hit.

If you want dessert, you may be out of luck. We were on the night we visited. The waitress explained that sometimes they have desserts, sometimes they don't. We left. Outside, a Lee's Ice Cream sign beckoned. We were tempted, but the silence seemed like dessert itself.--MC

Water Street Exchange, 110 Water St., (410) 332-4060. *** $$

We made a big mistake coming here on a Friday during happy hour and a street party. The crowd was loud and the beer was flowing.

But despite the mayhem, we had a delicious meal in stylish surroundings. The eight potato skins with fresh broccoli and just the right amount of Monterey Jack were outstanding. The five mozzarella sticks also were delicious.

We were glad there was even more good food on its way because conversation was quite impossible. We enjoyed a huge turkey pasta salad with prettily cut veggies and a tangy vinaigrette dressing, and a spicy Cajun chicken sandwich on a kaiser roll. By dessert time, the line to the restrooms was snaking past our table. But we endured the crowd and managed to share a properly decadent carrot cake.--SL

Weber's on Boston, 845 S. Montford Ave., (410) 276-0800. *** $$$

Wonderful food, uncomfortable bar stools. Actually, the stools are the standard variety, but this is food to linger over. No buffalo wings on this menu.

We began with a thick and sweet carrot soup and eggplant ravioli in a basil tomato puree. Mesclun salad featured fresh greens and a mound of feta. Spinach salad, flavored with sesame and orange, was flawless. We avoided the "lite fare menu," with calorie-conscious entrees, in favor of the more indulgent crab cakes and poached salmon over spinach with julienned vegetables. The salmon was marvelous, although the portion was a bit small. The crab cakes provided the evening's only significant disappointment -- too much filler.

Apple crumb pie was excellent but lacked its promised vanilla ice cream. Lemon custard torte tasted suspiciously like a plain old lemon bar.--PJ

The Wharf Rat, 206 W. Pratt St., (410) 244-8900. *** $$

The setting here is modeled after a quirky English pub, with an old Union Jack hanging over the entrance, wooden pews lining the walls, and an old bird cage, guitar and saxophone just a few of the items decorating the walls. The menu is equally eclectic, with a diverse selection of beers, a great variety of appetizers and entrees and an extensive list of delectable, house-made desserts.

The Victoria and Albert appetizer, a warm crab and artichoke dip for two served in an attractive sourdough bread bowl, was a creamy delight. Crab skins -- potato skins stuffed with potato and crab meat -- sounded clever but turned out to have more potato than crab flavor.

The pork chop grilled with a beer and honey glaze was a little on the sweet size, but the meat was moist and of generous size. The side dishes of broccoli and mashed potatoes were expertly prepared.--CC

The Wild Mushroom, 641 S. Montford Ave., (410) 675-4225. **** $$$

Fantastic. But "bar"? "Bar" sounds tough. Maybe "brasserie." A great neighborhood place, in any case. Worth driving a distance to enjoy.

The two rooms please the eye -- floral pinks and greens, a fine old wooden bar, some quirky chairs, and the menu high up on blackboards. More important, chef/owner Jennifer Price, formerly of M. Gettier and Spike & Charlie's, is a chef to the bone. Mushroom curry soup tasted delicately of curry, vigorously of mushroom. Grilled portobello mushrooms and greens should never leave the menu. A large, tender lamb shank was dressed imaginatively with walnuts and cherries. A shiitake and morel risotto couldn't have been better in Milan.

Save room for desserts. Fresh strawberries and cream, served with delicate cookies, and a chocolate bread pudding, --ed with whipped cream, made charming finales to a superb evening.--JB

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