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The Tourist Treatment

We were not quite accidental tourists in our own town. For one weekend, we joined the pleasure-seeking masses that stream through the Inner Harbor area filling up restaurants and themselves as they encounter a Baltimore dining experience.

We picked a prime tourist weekend, one in which the Yankees and their free-spending fans were in town. We ate on busy nights, Friday and Saturday. We fanned out to six establishments, the Cheesecake Factory, Obrycki's, Mo's Fisherman's Wharf, Chiapparelli's, Phillips Harborplace and ESPN Zone - places where casual attire and throngs of out-of-towners were common. Six Sun reporters, each with at least three companions in tow, showed up unannounced, chowed down and took notes.

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What we found was that, overall, Baltimore treats its tourists pretty well. There were irritations - a two-hour wait for a table at the Cheesecake Factory, a 17 percent gratuity added to the bill at Mo's and a shortage of steamed crabs at Obrycki's.

But there was no deception. The bills were accurate - no horror stories of phantom prices being added to the tab such as we've heard happening to tourists in other towns. Moreover, we got fed what we asked for, and, except in a few instances, we were treated well.

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They were not the kind of evenings that generated headlines, but in most cases, they probably would generate a return visit, especially when out-of-towners come calling.

Cheesecake Factory: Patience, it's all about patience

Remember how New York City's streets looked after the blackout, all clogged up with humanity, hordes of people weaving, merging and bumping into each other? Throw in some pasta, 36 types of cheesecake and repeated blasts from a loudspeaker - "Irene, party of six" - and you have the Cheesecake Factory on a Saturday night.

Be prepared for a long wait, less-than-speedy service and a meal that can take, as ours did, five hours or more.

And plan around it: Get your name on the list before you go explore the Harborplace shops. There's probably time, even, for a paddleboat ride.

We arrived at the Cheesecake Factory at 7 p.m. and were sucked into a nebulous mass that, it eventually became apparent, was actually several distinct lines. There was one for takeout, one for getting your name on the waiting list, one for people waiting for tables and one made up of people trying to figure out which line to get in.

Once in the right one, it took three minutes to leave a name with the hostess, who told us to expect a wait of 1 1/2 to two hours.

Our party of four walked around Harborplace for half an hour, then headed back to the restaurant and elbowed our way into the bar. Squeezing in between a loud Yankee fan and a not-so-loud Yankee fan, I managed to place a beverage order.

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At 9:10, after two hours and 10 minutes and a $36.96 bar tab, our party was called.

We were seated at an outdoor table, far from any source of light and sitting on the sloped edge of the patio at a distinct angle.

The menus - 20 pages long, with advertisements on every other page - were difficult to read, and the candle we asked for didn't help much, or for long. The wind kept blowing it out.

As we waited for appetizers, condensation from the drinks periodically puddled up and rolled down the slanting surface of the table, spilling into the lap of the friend on my right. Startled the first time it happened, he seemed to grow used to it.

At 10, we received our appetizers, and at 10:30, the entrees, brought by two other servers. Seconds later, before anyone had taken a bite, our server showed up to ask how everything tasted. He didn't show up again until he came to clear our plates, asking only, "Are you done eating?"

Whether it was the appetizers, the generous servings or just waiting so long that our appetites went into remission, no one ate more than half of his meal. Our server packed our leftovers, brought coffee and returned with the menus so we could see the dessert selection, which includes 36 types of cheesecake.

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The check was accurate, and our server valiantly attempted to pronounce my name when he returned my credit card and receipt. "Thank You!" was printed at the bottom, along with the words: "Don't Worry Be Happy!"

That is good advice to keep in mind when, heading back to your car, you realize that - after spending $30 in shops you didn't want to go to, $40 in a bar you didn't really want to wait in and $133.88 for your five-hour meal - you still have a parking fee ahead, $20 as it turned out.

It was like having to serve the sentence and pay the fine.

The Cheesecake Factory

Harborplace

410-234-3990

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The wait to be seated: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Wait predicted by hostess: 1 1/2 to two hours

Did the server check back after the food arrived?: No.

Total time of the experience: 5 hours

Was the check accurate?: Yes

Overall impression of service: Fair

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- John Woestendiek

Obrycki's: The pros do it right

If we had been tourists, dinner at Obrycki's, one of Baltimore's most famous crab houses, wouldn't have been a bad introduction to the crab capital of the world. Except that there were no crabs. Tropical storm Erika had disrupted the supply.

Other than that, we had no complaints. There's plenty of seafood on the menu to choose from, and while we couldn't pick crabs, dishes made with crab meat were still available. We (and tourists) could get our real Maryland crab cakes. The restaurant isn't cheap - entrees average $21 - but that probably bothers locals more than visitors.

Obrycki's staffers are pros at this stuff, so I wasn't surprised at how smoothly our meal went. I also wasn't surprised that the service was speedy. Popular tourist spots are eager to keep things moving.

Our waiter was back in a couple of minutes after we sat down to see if we were ready to order, pausing just long enough to recommend the two most expensive items on the menu when asked what was good. (He did caution us to order them only if we were very hungry.) Hey, I'm grateful he didn't say, "Everything's good."

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Our order was so complicated I asked him how he'd remember. He told me he had a photographic memory. I didn't think that would help much in this case - there not being anything to photograph - but he did get our order right down to the last detail.

Appetizers arrived quickly; in fact, our whole meal did. The waiter placed our salads to the side of our place mats because the main courses were coming out immediately after. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how much you like to linger over your food in a restaurant; but in a crab house I was just as happy to move along.

I'm not saying our waiter was my new best friend, but then I didn't want him to be. He slipped the check on our table without our asking, but he didn't bother us until we were ready to pay. And surprise: He charged me for the lower-priced of the two vegetables I had ordered (only one came with the meal), while he could have legitimately charged me for the one that was twice as expensive.

Obrycki's

1727 E. Pratt St., Baltimore

410-732-6399

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The wait to be seated: 10 minutes

Wait predicted by hostess: 30 minutes

Did the server check back after the food arrived?: Yes

Total time of meal: 2 hours

Was the check accurate? Yes

Overall impression of service: Good

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- Elizabeth Large

Chiapparelli's: Homey touches in Little Italy

Tell the out-of-town folks that Chiapparelli's is still Chiapparelli's, signifying the homey reassurance of chopped salad, red sauces and the days before anyone talked about the "Mediterranean diet" as if it were a medical breakthrough.

In other words: Welcome to Little Italy, where parking is more plentiful thanks to the relatively new garage but where much else is much as it was when Frank was running with the Rat Pack.

The most recent listing in the Zagat restaurant guide says Chiapparelli's "suffers from touristitis," whatever that means.

The place was busy, but not so busy that our party of four without reservations could not be accommodated with ease by our hostess, who promptly greeted us and seated us in less than five minutes.

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Our waitress was equally efficient, although one might quibble with a few points. The wait for her first appearance with menus leaned toward 10 minutes, which seemed a tad long. And while two specials were listed on the board by the hostess stand - a $20 seafood scampi and a $25 preparation of veal, shrimp and gnocchi - the waitress never volunteered information on any specials.

On the other hand, when asked for a recommendation, she suggested a shrimp Alfredo dish that was not on the menu at all, and went a step further by inviting us to order anything we liked, assuring that the chef could accommodate our every desire - a nice touch.

Her offer was some consolation for the way our appetizers were handled. We ordered fried calamari, fried provolone and cold green-bean salad. Perhaps the waitress thought we would share all three of them, as she brought out extra plates with the calamari and proceeded to stagger delivery of the next two in roughly 10-minute intervals.

The chopped salads included with each entree arrived with good pacing, as did the entrees. Did I mention the wine? A decent Beringer Cabernet for a mere $26, served with grace and in good time between the delivery of the menus and ordering dinner. The waitress poured a tasting portion, then the first round.

Two desserts were shared and the whole deal with the tip came in at $134.94. Unhurried, unpretentious, if unspectacular.

Worth a recommendation? For the visitor seeking a Little Italy moment and harboring no grand expectations, sure.

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Chiapparelli's

237 S. High St.

410-837-0309

The wait to be seated: Four minutes

Wait predicted by hostess: "A couple minutes"

Did the server check back after the food arrived?: Yes

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Total time of meal: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Was the check accurate?: Yes

Overall impression of service: Good

- Arthur Hirsch

Phillips Harborplace: First impressions count

For many out-of-town visitors, Phillips Harborplace is their port of entry into Baltimore cuisine.

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So first impressions matter. And in our case, those impressions detracted slightly from what otherwise was a delightful evening out. Our party of four (including three first-time visitors) walked up to the hostess station at 5:45 p.m. on a Saturday about 90 minutes before the start of a Baltimore Orioles home game.

But it wasn't until we forged our way to the head of that line 10 minutes later that we discovered that this station handled only alfresco dining; because the weather was steamy and storms were predicted, we preferred air-conditioning. A sign directing those customers who opt to dine indoors to the appropriate entrance would save patrons time and aggravation.

Once we got inside, our hearts sank and our mood soured when we saw the line waiting to get in. When one of us approached the front register to inquire about the estimated wait, it took five minutes and a concerted effort to catch the eye of the busy hostess. "Not long," she said. "About 15 minutes."

In fact, we were seated within 10 minutes. The harbor twinkled out a nearby window, and a roving jazz quartet was playing "Alexander's Ragtime Band." From then on, the only crabs were on the menu.

Our server was quick, friendly, knowledgeable and efficient. We were a picky bunch, and she handled our multiple requests with ease, including changing tables to a more secluded spot, and water without ice for two of us. She recommended a midprice wine that pleased our connoisseurs. Our order included cocktails, wine, appetizers, entrees and desserts, and the bill was correct.

The one other minor problem was the kitchen's fault. After she had served three of us our dinners, our server noticed that the chef had inadvertently substituted the Alaskan king crab legs (at $37.99 for one pound) for the snow crab legs that one of us had ordered (at $19.99 for one pound). That's quite a difference.

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While the rest of the party began the meal, the fourth diner had to wait an additional seven minutes for her entree to be served. A more gracious solution would have been for the restaurant to take the loss and serve the more expensive dinner.

Phillips Harborplace

301 Light St.

410-685-6600

Wait to be seated: 20 minutes (10 minutes to find the right line; 10 minutes to be seated once in line)

Wait predicted by hostess: 15 minutes

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Did the server check back after the food arrived?: Yes

Total time of meal: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Check accurate?: Yes

Overall impression of service: Good

- Mary Carole McCauley

ESPN Zone: Winning points for efficiency

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For the under-30 crowd, and parents of the under-10 crowd, the ESPN Zone is a tourist destination worth visiting.

The upstairs arcade in the Inner Harbor sports bar is something of a meeting spot for folks in their 20s, although how they can strike up a conversation is a bit of a mystery considering how noisy it is.

It's also a place where it doesn't matter if the kids talk too loudly, drop their silverware or crawl under the table, as mine did.

The ESPN Zone understands kids. Perhaps on the Friday night we visited all of the sports fans were at Camden Yards, but our hostess seated us at our table in about five minutes, along with a stash of fresh crayons and two kiddie place mats.

The waitress didn't flinch when my 7-year-old decided that instead of the milk he had ordered, he really wanted Hawaiian Punch like his brother. She took back the milk and promptly brought him the punch. And all the kids' drink came in plastic cups with lids.

The grown-ups were treated well, too. Our waitress happily suggested her favorite dishes on the menu and recommended a merlot to accompany my husband's filet mignon. When a friend's salad came without dressing, the waitress apologized and took it back to the kitchen where the error was corrected.

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When it came time to order desserts, the older boy opted instead to go see the arcade upstairs. When he and his dad came back to the table to find the rest of us eating ice cream, cake and pie, he decided that he, too, wanted dessert.

By that time, our efficient waitress was approaching with the check. Was there anything else, she wanted to know. A bit sheepily, I asked for a strawberry milkshake.

Again, she didn't miss a beat. She took back the check and said the milkshake would be right out. Another waitress brought the milkshake, and somehow, in the confusion, our first waitress brought a second milkshake a few minutes later. We sent that one back.

If I had been her, I would have let out a deep, irritated sigh. But she didn't. And when the $180 bill came, there was no charge for the kids' drinks, including the returned milk.

When I asked about the omissions, our waitress said drinks with kids' meals are free. However, my older son hadn't ordered a kid's meal, so we came out ahead.

We were in and out of the restaurant in 1 hour and 35 minutes - before all of the crayons had fallen on the floor.

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ESPN Zone

601 E. Pratt St.

410-685-ESPN

The wait to be seated: 5 minutes, 15 seconds

Wait predicted by hostess: "A few minutes"

Did the server check back after the food arrived? Yes

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Total time of meal: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Was the check accurate? Yes

Overall impression of service: Good

- Liz Atwood

Mo's Fisherman's Wharf Restaurant: At the end of the meal, there's a surprise

Supper was a brisk experience, marred by an unexpected 17 percent gratuity charge for so-so service at Mo's Fisherman's Wharf Restaurant on President Street.

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Our party of four was seated as soon as we walked in the door. Our table by the window offered us a good view of a Saturday-night scene - families pushing strollers and couples holding hands as they ambled from the Inner Harbor toward the edge of Little Italy.

Within a few minutes of getting menus, we were ordering appetizers and entrees. I was intrigued by an asterisk on the menu noting that certain types of fish were eligible for "fish du jour preparation," but our waiter dismissed it. Tonight, it seemed, the only cooking treatment for fish was broiled.

I had to holler at our waiter, who was busy seating and serving other customers, to order a bottle of wine. After the waiter poured the initial glasses, refilling became my job.

The check came to our table before I had asked for it. I sent it back and ordered coffee and dessert. The restaurant was busy, but there were seats available. Nonetheless, the hurried pace of the service made me feel rushed.

When I got the check, I got a surprise - a 17 percent gratuity had already been added. The service had not been that impressive. When I asked the waiter about the charge, I was told it was stated on the menu. Notice of the automatic gratuity was not visible on the menu posted outside the restaurant's door and I had not seen it on the larger menu handed to me at the table. But when I went back to check the table menu, there indeed was a notice of the charge that was added to all bills, not just those of large groups.

Our night at Mo's was a speedy one - the whole dining experience lasted an hour and 15 minutes - but the tone was brusque. When we left, no one said thank you or goodbye.

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The lesson learned seemed to be that when the tip is guaranteed, good service is not a given.

Mo's Fisherman's Wharf Restaurant

219 President St., Baltimore

401-837-8600

The wait to be seated: None

Wait predicted by hostess: Not applicable

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Did the server check back after the food arrived? No

Total time of meal: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Was the check accurate? Yes, but 17 percent gratuity added

Overall impression of service: Fair

- Rob Kasper


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