There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.
-- Samuel Johnson
England's 18th-century sage was off only slightly. The one thing more satisfying than a good tavern is this: an unexpectedly well-made dinner at a tavern.
Surely, first-time customers to this modest roadhouse near Gunpowder Falls at the northern end of Baltimore County aren't prepared for seafood cooked to just the right level of doneness, perfectly steamed vegetables or a delightful cheese and lentil fritter.
But, as regulars guzzled their long-necks and chalked their pool cues, here we were sitting near the bar thinking we had never eaten better coquilles St. Jacques.
That, in a scallop shell, is the joy and the sheer oddity of the Pioneer Pub. There is surprisingly good food here. But you may have to listen to Regis Philbin's game show blarinng from a TV set, sit on a metal chair with a ripped vinyl seat and endure a few wafts of cigarette smoke drifting over from the bar while you're eating.
All of which makes the pub either a roadside bar with an unusually good dinner menu or a fine restaurant with a crummy atmosphere.
Our dinner started with a steaming-hot cup of cream of celery soup, a mildly flavored, thickened chicken stock with celery that makes a superb fall comfort food. It was followed by the terrific coquilles St. Jacques -- scallops in a creamy wine sauce -- and a praiseworthy bruschetta hampered only by out-of-season tomatoes.
A garden salad that mixed romaine and iceberg lettuce and a "salad of mixed greens" that included a sliced Granny Smith apple were only fair. The greens in both were slightly wilted, perhaps a day or two past their prime, and the dressings were pretty standard fare.
But the seafood entrees were a revelation. Rockfish en papillotes, a boneless fillet cooked in parchment with minced vegetables, was sheer bliss. Pan-fried grouper served over a lentil and cheese fritter was a clever combination. While the grouper suffered from just a tad too much salt, the crunchy fritter was a crowd-pleaser.
Both entrees were accompanied by steamed broccoli that retained just the right state of crispness -- a minor thing, perhaps, but a benchmark more luxurious restaurants sometimes fail to achieve.
The waitress warned one member of our party that the plate containing her entree, a mushroom and herb risotto with shiitake and portobello mushrooms, would be very hot. Turned out it was quite cool -- as was the risotto, much to its detriment.
Desserts were the only routine part of the dinner menu. A slice of apple pie was heated to the dark-brown stage. We had only one quibble with the creamy slice of New York-style cheesecake: It was a boring finish to a fine meal.
There is a light-fare menu of salads and sandwiches available for late-night dinner and for less-adventurous diners. But be warned: Our waitress told us that the dinner menu may be revised soon because the restaurant is under new ownership.
For the easily offended, there is a separate dining room near the back of the building with its own entrance and no bar, pool table or TV playing Regis. But it wasn't open the Tuesday night our party visited.
17417 York Road, Parkton
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa
Prices: Appetizers, $2.75-$6.50; entrees, $11-$16.50
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *
Pub Date: 11/25/99