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Popular dining, but uneven; Arnold: A busy neighborhood restaurant proves a likable spot despite an inconsistent meal.; $50 and under


Strange that we'd never heard of O'Loughlin's. When we drove up, unannounced of course, on a recent Saturday night, everyone else was already there. Or so it seemed.

The Arnold neighborhood bar and restaurant was packed -- all of about 15 tables and every bar stool, nook and cranny -- with families or couples on the nearly hourlong waiting list for those tables.

We signed up and rode out a little more than half the time with a drive-by look at the community, pulling in and out of a few dead-end waterfront drives to gawk at the houses or their view of the Magothy River. It was pretty nice.

O'Loughlin's is near the water end of Shore Acres Road. At the fork, you get to choose from the only two restaurants in the community: Deep Creek to the right, on the water, is a little pricier, and you can sail in for dinner.

O'Loughlin's is to the left, and you have to drive, pedal or walk there. The smiles of the people working there made the remaining minutes of our wait entertaining, despite hunger pangs.

Bonnie sipped a glass of the house Chardonnay at the bar ($3.50, billed separately), while David munched on the free, spicy nut-and-cracker mix.

Once seated, David opened with a cup of cream of crab soup ($2.95), which was not quite as thick or rich as some but had generous hunks of crab meat at the bottom. Its creamy white surface was topped by a stripe of Old Bay seasoning.

Our $14.95 entrees came with a choice of two accompaniments, including the salad we both ordered. It was a mix of lettuce, cukes, green peppers and cherry tomatoes and an abundance of thickly sliced carrots. Bonnie's house herb vinaigrette dressing was excellent, superior to David's peppered Parmesan.

We admired the warm French rolls -- on other tables. Ours arrived only after an official inquiry with the waitress, but with a smile.

Bonnie's main dish, crab imperial, was rich and creamy, a modest portion served on a clam-shell plate. It was as fine a rendition as she can recall, but, alas, there was not enough to carry away leftovers.

The rice she ordered was sadly ordinary, with taste and texture like that of a box mix.

David's 12-ounce strip steak was tender and served precisely to his medium-rare preference, but the baked potato suffered from sitting too long in the heat of its aluminum-foil wrap. (Note to chef: Aluminum foil is the ruin of many a potato.)

Desserts were superb. Bonnie chose the "chocolate indulgence" pie and David had the chocolate mousse pie (each at $2.95).

With a glass of wine, the tab was roughly $42 before tip and the deduction for our dining book coupon. (Note to David and Bonnie: Use the coupons when you're not on an expense account.)

The inconsistent meal came to 2 1/2 stars, and we wish we could give it more. We really liked the place, as did the many regulars we saw devouring hot wings, ribs, burgers and fries, and departing with such farewells as, "Great meal, Tom."

Proprietor Tom Crawford said our meals might have inconsistent in part because some of his crew had been busy preparing for a big event: After 14 years on Shore Acres, O'Loughlin's will move in June to larger quarters in the Bay Hills shopping center formerly occupied by the Blue Channel Inn.


Where: 1013 Shore Acres Road, Arnold; 410-974-0136

Hours Dinner 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Prices: Appetizers, $1.95-$6.95; entrees, $4.95-$14.95, plus children's menu

Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, Discover, American Express

Handicap accessible Rating: ** 1/2

Ratings: * culinary wasteland **** culinary heaven

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