Clyde's is known for its hamburgers, and with good reason. Cooked to order over an open flame grill, they are juicy, flavorful marvels that are almost too big to bite. They arrive on a substantial roll, with a side of crisp-outside, meaty-inside fries that put the fast-food chains to shame.
I ordered mine medium-rare, with grilled onions and mushrooms, and it arrived exactly as requested.
As we ate, I enjoyed the happy buzz of conversation around me, especially the man behind us who was laughing heartily at the bad jokes he was telling his tablemates.
People always seem to be in a good mood at Clyde's. You can take your new boss there, or your new baby, and both will feel at home. So will your crazy college roommate and your sedate in-laws. Who wouldn't like large portions of good food, a warm wood-and-brass interior and attentive but unobtrusive service?
When we sat down on a recent cold night, the hostess offered to take our coats to the cloakroom. It's the kind of nice touch that makes Clyde's such a joy.
After 26 years at its location overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi, Clyde's delivers its winning formula with skill and ease. The restaurant is part of a chain that began in Georgetown in 1963 and now has 11 restaurants in the Washington region, including six named Clyde's.
Though hamburgers and chili are signature dishes that have been with the restaurant since the beginning, the menu also offers more sophisticated fare, prepared by chef Kenny Clay.
On our visit, his offerings included a paella made with tiny orzo noodles instead of the traditional rice, and a penne with chicken and Italian sausages. The garlicky paella, a rich golden color, was loaded with calamari, shrimp, chicken, sausage and vegetables, and garnished with mussels in their black shells. The penne, in a tomato-wine sauce, was a savory combination of sausage disks, chicken chunks and vegetables. In both cases, the portions almost overflowed their enormous platters.
We started off with a wonderfully rich cream of crab soup that did not stint on crabs or flavor, and a sesame-crusted salad of tuna slices just charred on the edges while still pink in the middle. The tart salad bed, described on the menu as Asian slaw, was a crunchy delight, though not particularly Asian in flavor.
We also had the American farmhouse cheese sampler, another Clyde's tradition. (The cheeses vary according to what is available.) Our plate included generous servings of a strong blue cheese and three milder cheeses, served with apple slices, raisin bread and a finger-length pink sliver of something that tasted sweet.
We asked our waiter about it and learned that it was a sort of date and almond jelly. The next time we get something so unusual on our plate, we'd like the waiter to tell us what it is beforehand.
The desserts, which are made on the premises, veer toward American classics, heavy on the chocolate and ice cream.
The brownie sundae, served in a large glass and topped with whipped cream, was the perfect mix of warm and cold, chocolate and vanilla. The Key lime pie was a slice of sweet-tart joy on a graham-cracker crust.
The only dish that was a little off the beaten track was a mochaccino napoleon layered with disks of puff pastry and fillings of hazelnut and coffee and chocolate mascarpone cream. It was less sweet than the other desserts -- a bit of a risk, but one that paid off.
It seems that Clyde's can do no wrong.
Clyde's of Columbia
Where: 10221 Wincopin Circle, Columbia
Open: For lunch and dinner daily, and for Sunday brunch
Prices: Appetizers: $5.95-$8.95; entrees $7.25-$19.95
Credit cards: All major cards
Food: *** 1/2
Atmosphere: *** 1/2
Service: *** 1/2
Excellent ****; Good ***; Fair **; Poor *