If friends hadn't told me how much they liked the food at Jennings Cafe, I might never have ventured into this dark neighborhood bar in Catonsville. Decked out in knotty-pine paneling with accents of red, the Jennings Cafe probably looks much as it did in 1958. That was the year Omar Jennings Sr. opened the bar with his son, Omar Jr. Now Omar III has taken up the reins at the horse-themed Jennings Cafe, where eight tables in the small dining room and others near the bar fill nightly with regulars. Many greeted our spunky veteran waitress by name.
I had heard that Jennings is known for its seafood, jumbo roast beef sandwiches, and oyster stew served in season. So expectations ran high as friends and I settled in for a weeknight dinner.
Despite a meal that was largely uneven, I can understand how people could fall in love with a place like Jennings. It is homey and comfortable, even with smoke drifting from the bar. It serves generous portions of food at reasonable prices. And at its best, as it was with a special of pan-fried orange roughy, the restaurant serves food that can be impressive.
Our fillet was massive and impeccably fresh, draped across the plate in a crispy wrap of golden cornmeal breading. It was cooked perfectly, too. With each cut of the fork, the fish flaked into moist, milky-white sections.
Other seafood we tried was not nearly as good, from the overcooked, unappealing steamed shrimp, which seemed to have been reheated, to the lukewarm Maryland crab soup, which was full of vegetables but lacked crab flavor. The fluffy crab dip made with cream cheese was a better appetizer, we decided, as we slathered it over warm slices of Italian bread.
Three soft-shell crabs, deep-fried until crunchy on the outside, were fine, but a platter of crab cakes was a disaster. Mushy on the inside and blended with too much salty seasoning mix, the crab cakes tasted like stuffing from a box. It was an assault on perfectly decent backfin crab meat.
On the other hand, Jennings' hot roast beef sandwich lives up to its reputation. Ours was made with lots of good, tender beef, thinly sliced and tucked between slices of white bread. But instant potatoes, a personal pet peeve, were not worth the water they were made with, and the pale gravy that covered everything tasted canned.
That didn't stop my friends from plowing into a plate of golden fries smothered with the same gravy. I chalked it up to culinary nostalgia. Our other vegetable choices of steamed broccoli and spinach, and cole slaw and potato salad, were all fresh and well-prepared.
As with the gravy, there's something nostalgic about the homemade cakes and pies at Jennings. If you're a fan of old-fashioned desserts, be sure to try a slice of the banana cream or pistachio cream pie. Both have a kind of time-warp appeal that's the perfect finish to a dinner here.
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808 Frederick Road, Catonsville
Hours: Open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner; closed Sunday
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers, $2.75-$6.95; entrees, $3.25-$16.95
Food: * *1/2
Service: * *1/2
Atmosphere: * *1/2
Ratings system: Outstanding: * * * *; Good * * *; Fair or uneven * *; Poor *