Timing's off at bustling Looney's Pub North

The Baltimore Sun

In many ways, a restaurant meal is like a show. People want to be entertained, not just fed. And Looney's Pub North, the Bel Air offshoot of Looney's Pub in Canton, is certainly entertaining.

Looney's is the kind of sprawling sports bar-live-bands-karaoke-burgers-and-barbecue place that flaunts its fun side. Fully 100 televisions, mostly enormous, dominate the place, and all are turned to sports.

But a good experience -- either at a restaurant or at a show -- also depends on attention to detail, particularly as it relates to timing. And here's where Looney's falters.

Timing is what separates perfectly seared tuna steaks from lumps of overcooked sawdust-dry fish. It separates a medium-rare burger from the medium one that was requested.

Timing also makes the difference between attentive service and the feeling that you're at the impersonal receiving end of a vast machinery devoted to the delivery of food, alcohol and noise.

During our visit to Looney's Pub North, our own bad timing involved arriving at the height of the dinner rush. Our 35-minute wait for appetizers might not have been quite as annoying if we weren't so hungry and tired. And I'm sure we would have been more tolerant if our waitress had stopped by now and then to see how we were doing. But amid the noise and bustle of Looney's, we felt ignored.

Looney's has been in Bel Air since 2002, said Bill Larney, who owns both Looney's restaurants with Steve Litrenta. The Bel Air space was expanded by 5,000 square feet in February, bringing it to about 11,000, he said. And nearly every inch roars with activity.

The space is divided into a smoking-allowed (at least for now) bar area, surrounded by tables, with a stage in front for karaoke, disc jockeys and live performances. The main dining area is more family-friendly, and even has a little video-game area where kids can play for free while they wait for those appetizers.

The predictable menu includes appetizers of chicken tenders ($7.99) and crab dip ($9.29) and entrees of hamburgers ($6.99), fajitas ($13.99 for chicken) and cheese steaks ($7.99). Portions are large, much of the food is fried, and french fries are treated like vegetables.

While this is hardly a kitchen stretching its culinary imagination, some of the food was better than OK, particularly a barbecued-pork sandwich ($8.49) served on a chewy baguette and stuffed with tender, shredded meat. This came with a generous side of coleslaw that was almost really good. The cabbage seemed freshly sliced and the caraway seeds added pizazz, but a bit too much mayo kept it from being perfect.

The hamburger, though served medium-rare instead of the requested medium, was excellent. Made with Angus beef, it was nicely charred on the exterior and juicy inside. And it came with a generous mound of deliciously crunchy-salty fries.

Also good were the Buffalo wings ($8.25 for 12), offered with jerk, Old Bay, barbecue and a few other sauce choices. These were plenty meaty, with crunchy skin and lots of tangy sauce.

But other dishes, including fried shrimp ($8.99) and chicken tenders, had a food-service feel to them, as though they were taken out of a freezer and fried or heated in a hurry. And then there were those tuna bites ($8.99). Dusted in jerk seasoning that gave off a pleasant heat, these could have been nice, but they were so dry they were almost difficult to chew.

Not all seafood suffers the way the shrimp and tuna do. The restaurant has a raw bar with steamed mussels, clams and shrimp, as well as oysters and king crab legs. The clams we sampled were on the small side, but they were sweet and fresh-tasting. They arrived, rather oddly, in a bowl with no broth. The only accompaniments were a plastic tub of melted butter and half an ear of corn.

Desserts change regularly and might include cheesecake or a mousse. The peanut-butter mousse we tried, shaped into a little cake and coated in squiggles of chocolate, was pretty, but rather bland.

To Looney's credit, that dessert was about the only boring part of our visit. Looney's may not be perfect, but it's certainly not dull.

Looney's Pub

Where: 312 S. Main St., Bel Air

Call: 410-803-7080

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily, kitchen open to 1 a.m. daily

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Appetizers $5.99-$11.99, entrees $6.99-$26.99

Food: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)

Service: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)

Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)

[Outstanding: **** (4 STARS) Good: *** ( 3 STARS) Fair or uneven:

** ( 2 STARS) Poor:* (1STAR)

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