The expensive, late-model foreign cars parked outside McCabe's aren't indigenous to the restaurant's Hampden neighborhood. They're a testament to people's willingness to drive to find a classic neighborhood bar with good food and friendly service.
There's almost always a line for a table here. If you don't want to wait, your best bet is to put together a party of at least five and get a reservation.
We've eaten at McCabe's frequently over the years, waiting as long as 30 minutes on a weeknight for a table just to have a superior cheeseburger and a pint of DeGroen's Marzen (now discontinued).
Rumors of change at this nearly perfect eatery hit us hard. There was a new chef in the kitchen, we were told. Since we were always pretty focused on the burgers at McCabe's, we had never paid much attention to who was doing the cooking. But now we had to go and check things out.
On a recent evening, we had the specialties of the house - a cheeseburger and a crab-cake platter. The cheeseburger - large, juicy and cooked as requested - remains excellent. The Old Bay-seasoned fries have always been a matter of taste between the two of us (one of us loves them, one of us doesn't). The crab cakes were pronounced by our guests - native Marylanders - to be the best they'd ever had. They're large, crabby and contain just enough filler to hold them together. Delicious garlic mashed potatoes make the perfect side.
A less successful dish was a special that evening, an individual pizza with crab and shrimp. The crust, a store-bought boboli, was fine, and the mozzarella tasted fresh. Unfortunately, the crab meat was overpowered by the other ingredients, especially the shrimp, which had been prepared in Old Bay and were overcooked.
Swordfish au poivre, another special, featured a large piece of grilled fish served in a rich sauce with lots of cracked peppers and shallots. The fish was cooked well, with adequate moisture and pinkness left. The sauce complemented the meaty fish well. Served alongside were more of the excellent garlic mashed potatoes.
On other occasions, we've tried the restaurant's baby-back ribs and found them justifiably famous - lean, tender, juicy and served with a tasty, piquant sauce. Happily, we found them unchanged on this visit.
Desserts were uneven. The hot-fudge sundae was, as always, ideal. It's made of high-quality vanilla ice cream, a bittersweet chocolate sauce that tastes homemade and real whipped cream. The bread pudding - a McCabe's standard - was rich and creamy. On the other hand, the apple pie tasted as if it had been forgotten in the microwave for days. Only the excellent vanilla ice cream was worthwhile.
On our previous visits to McCabe's, the restaurant's small, jampacked dining room has been worked by a friendly and efficient wait staff. We saw the same faces on this visit, but their normal smooth service seemed hindered by the kitchen, which wasn't turning out food as quickly as in the past.
Although there has been some slippage in food quality and service at this fine establishment, we're far from ready to give up on McCabe's. We feel certain that the restaurant will soon return to peak form.
3845 Falls Road 410-467-1000
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner except Mondays
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers $4.95 to $8.95; entrees $5.95 to $17.95
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Ratings system: Outstanding:****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *