Long gone are the days when you had to limit yourself to Baltimore or Annapolis to get sophisticated contemporary cuisine in Maryland. Some of the state's best restaurants are in small towns or rural areas where fresh, local ingredients are ready at hand and celebrity chefs have retreated to a quieter existence.
The success of the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., demonstrated that lovers of good food are willing to travel a long distance and spend a small fortune, but you don't have to go out of the state for a gracious rural setting and superb cuisine.
This time of year people are more willing than usual to travel for an hour or so if the destination is a fine meal. They can enjoy the autumn color along the way, take the back roads, or stop for a spot of antiquing.
Here are 10 destination restaurants that we think are worth the trip. We've limited our suggestions to places no farther than 90 minutes away from Baltimore, although we realize that eliminates some excellent Maryland restaurants. Leave plenty of time for the drive so you won't be rushed, or make a day of it.
30 Trevanion Road, Taneytown
Prix fixe: $62.50
One of the area's most elegant inns offers six-course prix fixe meals in a formal dining room or in the cozy smokehouse. Hors d'oeuvres are served in the drawing rooms before dinner. Baltimore's Michael Gettier has taken over the kitchen, and the elaborate French-accented food can be superb.
Signature dish: Pan-seared foie gras with blackberry demi glace, gaufrette potatoes, wilted romaine lettuce and micro-watercress
7618 Main St., Sykesville
A restored train station is the quaint setting for surprisingly contemporary food. The specialty here is fish -- including some unusual ones like wahoo and New Zealand warehou. Black Angus beef is on the menu as well. Outdoor tables on the station platform in back have a view of the river.
Signature dish: Chilean sea bass with mango-habanero vinaigrette (market price)
6212 Ridge Road, Mount Airy
The former Quail Ridge Inn has been reinvented, with an updated menu offering dishes ranging from Brunswick stew to beef with a bordelaise sauce. New owner Todd Bricken takes the concept of regional American food seriously: Each week the cuisine of one state is featured in the daily specials.
Signature dish: Pork tenderloin with a bourbon peppercorn crust ($14.95)
208 High St., Chestertown
The stately, turn-of-the-century mansion houses a handsome dining room that specializes in eclectic contemporary food. New chef Eliza Abbey creates whatever strikes her fancy with local, seasonal ingredients, some grown in the hotel's own garden.
Signature dish: Toasted pecan- and peanut-encrusted rack of lamb with fortified lamb jus ($28)
INN AT EASTON
28 S. Harrison St., Easton
Entrees: $25-$28; prix fixe Fri. and Sat.: $49
Chef-owner Andrew Evans' modern Australian cuisine has received national attention from the likes of Food & Wine and Country Living. His cooking -- which makes use of organic produce from local farmers and local seafood -- contains French, Mediterranean and Asian influences.
Signature dish: Treasures of the Bay appetizer: crab cake with tomato confit and tartar sauce, oyster poached in white truffle cream with sevruga caviar, and teriyaki-glazed skate wing on nori and sushi rice ($14)
4424 A Urbana Pike, Frederick
The exterior doesn't reflect the cozy country dining rooms -- or the upscale new American cuisine and a sophisticated wine list. White meatloaf with cabernet-tomato puree, anyone? (Suggested wine: Kenwood Pinot Noir 2000.) Owners Rich and Kelly Regan hail from Baltimore, where Rich Regan cooked at Corks.
Signature dish: kataifi-crusted loup de mer (wolf fish) with tomato beurre blanc ($19)
14833 York Road, Sparks
Long Baltimore's best-known destination restaurant with prices to match, the Milton Inn has become more accessible with chef Brian Boston in the kitchen. Try the three-course chef's tasting menu for $30. The food is contemporary American with occasional Asian accents.
Signature dish: Rack of lamb with sweet potato mousse, asparagus with hollandaise and a baked tomato with garlic bread crumbs ($34)
28 S. Washington St., Easton
The minimalist dining rooms have a peaceful, Zen-like quality; but the four-star food is far from simple, with dishes like curried pork and green onion ravioli in a spicy coconut sauce. The short, innovative menu changes every three weeks.
Signature dish: Roast rack of lamb with pistachio and raspberry sauce ($27)
5820 Carroll Boyer Road, Middletown 301-473-5454
Prix fixe: $69
Folks drive from Washington, Baltimore and Virginia to eat in the inn's gracious dining rooms furnished with antiques. The five-course menu changes weekly, and dishes come and go according to the season. An award-winning wine list accompanies the contemporary American cuisine.
Signature dish: Sauteed sea scallops with chanterelles, applewood-smoked bacon, fresh peaches and a peach schnapps cream reduction
TURNING POINT INN
3406 Urbana Pike, Frederick
The Colonial Revival-style mansion has a formal dining room for special occasions and a club room for more casual meals. Guests will find an American menu with European influences; diners love the lobster bisque with big lumps of lobster.
Signature dish: Roasted sea bass with goat cheese risotto in saffron cream ($21.95)