A simple little place -- with dancing; Restaurant: The friendly Plaza Grille offers American classics, nicely prepared, in a downtown setting.


What do you do if, like Steve Levinson, you own a restaurant space but have no tenant and no prospect of one? Even though you know better, you might be tempted to open your own place there rather than leave it empty.

Years ago Levinson had a French restaurant, Cafe des Artistes, in the Hopkins Plaza space. He moved it to Mount Washington, presumably because he thought it would do better out of center city. What fit of madness drove him to open another restaurant in this up-till-now doomed downtown spot?

I say "up-till-now" because, remarkably, the Plaza Grille may turn out to be the right restaurant at the right time. Levinson's partners are Rod Fingles, former partner in the Milton Inn, and Jan Tennekoon, who was part owner of a California winery. But the restaurant they've created is much more modest than you might expect from that pedigree.

Maybe what this area needs is a simple little place with a hot turkey sandwich on the menu -- but one that also offers dancing to live music Thursday through Saturday nights.

And that's what Levinson and his partners have given us. It's a pretty restaurant, bigger than you might think. If you eat here during the week you'll be encouraged to sit in the bar, and you may never see the several other dining rooms. We did only because we didn't want to get stuck with the smokers and happy-hour crowd.

The owners bring new meaning to the phrase "genial hosts." Although you may be tempted to tell them to back off, their hearts are in the right place. They just have to realize that sometimes customers don't want new best friends. We have our own friends: those people who are sitting at the table with us.

In any case, the owners are smart enough to remember what so many new restaurant owners forget: Keep it simple. Simple as in an all-American menu -- or as American as it can be when the mussels come from New Zealand and there's a Mandarin chicken salad with a decidedly Asian flavor.

The Plaza Grille offers plenty of classics, like plump clams casino made with bread crumbs, crumbled bacon and melted butter. Or mildly smoky salmon on toast points, with capers, chopped onions and chopped egg. Both are better than the mussels, which had been steamed a bit too long and came in an uninspired broth.

The wildest our meal got was the special that evening, a fiery jambalaya made with chicken, shrimp, andouille sausage and three colors of peppers ("no crawdaddies," our waiter warned us). My friend from Louisiana gave it a thumbs up.

London broil was fine, though covered with what was closer to gravy than the promised "delectable wine sauce." (But the gravy was moderately delectable in its own right.) Good roast potatoes and mixed vegetables came alongside.

I also liked the fresh fillet of flounder stuffed with a satisfying crab-meat mixture. Rice and perfectly cooked broccoli florets came with it.

I did not like the grilled vegetable platter one friend ordered. It was short on vegetables and long on pasta (which wasn't even mentioned on the menu). And the portobello mushroom, the "meat" of the dish, tasted as if it had been marinated in something quite sour.

The one house-made dessert that evening was carrot cake, dark and moist with plenty of cream cheese frosting. Key lime pie and a chocolate and raspberry cheesecake were from off the premises and were just OK.

A decent meal, in other words. Avoid a few pitfalls, like the vegetable platter, and you'll be happy without spending too much money. But what may really tip the balance for you in the Plaza Grille's favor is the live music. There aren't many places in Baltimore where you can go dancing after dinner on a Thursday night.


Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 9 Hopkins Plaza

Hours: Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Tuesday through Saturday for dinner. Expanded hours during Mechanic Theatre productions.

Prices: Appetizers: $2.95-$7.95; entrees: $6.95-$21.95

Call: 410-962-7300

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 02/14/99

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