Halfway through our meal at Cardwell's Tavern, our server told us the next round of drinks would be on the house.
As co-owner Craig Nachodsky later explained: "When I see someone who hasn't been in before, I like to buy them a round of drinks because I think it's nice. I like to make people feel at home."
With its dark interior dominated by a large bar, Cardwell's looks like many other neighborhood watering holes. Decorations are mainly Guinness posters and signs announcing the next open-mike night. The dining area is nothing more than a few tall round tables with bar stools.
The environment seemed more focused on drinking than eating, so our expectations were low. Boy, were we surprised.
The food isn't fancy, but it is delicious. The menu consists mostly of simple fare like fish and chips, shepherd's pie and sandwiches, plus a few nightly specials.
Two items in particular were standouts: the Maryland crab soup and the shepherd's pie. The soup was almost a stew, with huge morsels of sweet crab meat and fresh vegetables in a spicy tomato broth. The generous portion, which arrived with a heel of toasted French bread, could easily make a meal in itself.
The shepherd's pie appetizer was an uncomplicated stew of tender lamb chunks, topped with savory, garlicky mashed potatoes. Though I couldn't find any of the vegetables listed in the menu description, just thinking about this dish makes my mouth water.
The fried calamari appetizer was an enormous portion of tender, chewy squid, lightly breaded and served with a small bowl of fresh-tasting marinara sauce. A third appetizer, bacon-wrapped shrimp, was fresh and tasty and arrived with a hunk of bread coated with warm honey and gooey melted cheese.
Fish and chips were interpreted as three whale-sized slabs of flaky white fish - covered with a grease-free beer batter - and a heaping pile of meaty, skins-on french fries.
Even something as simple as a chicken-salad sandwich was above par. The salad, served on a sturdy kaiser roll, had a lovely tarragon flavor and the right amount of mayonnaise.
Starting with the expertly poured Guinness beers and continuing through the meal, the service was knowledgeable, friendly and unobtrusive.
Nachodsky says he and co-owner Dave Cardwell opened the place in September 2002, hoping to create a neighborhood bar that could be all things to all people. To that end, Cardwell's has open-mike nights and Monday-night movies, and the menu boasts a selection of six cigars for sale, along with a changing roster of draft beers, dozens of bottled beers and red and white wines sold by the glass or bottle.
But the food is the biggest draw. About half of the recipes come from Nachodsky, who went to culinary school years ago and says he still likes to mess around in the kitchen on occasion. The rest of the dishes come from the chef, Brian Ashworth.
We were disappointed that bangers and mash weren't served the night we were there, and we want to try the crab cakes, so we'll be back.
Dessert is not a priority. Apple pie is sometimes served at Cardwell's, but it was not available the night we were there, because snow-covered roads had blocked the delivery. No problem - we were full enough without it.
Where: 2239 Essex St., Canton
Open: For lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$8.95; entrees $6.95-$24.95
Credit cards: All major cards
Food: * * * 1/2
Atmosphere: * *
Service: * * * 1/2
Excellent * * * *; Good * * *; Fair * *; Poor *