Self-confidence is as attractive in a restaurant as it is in a person. The best places to dine both expensively and frugally more often than not turn out to be the product of someone's clear vision.
You can tell you're in one of these places when you're relaxed and satisfied. Someone else has done the hard work. Servers feel this too - good service hardly ever happens in an uncertain setting. And the only thing that really matters about ambience is that it's been thought about. Great food helps. Sometimes, a place like this will appeal directly to your desires - that's when you fall in love.
While reviewing inexpensive dining in 2009, this happened to me at Red Canoe Bookstore in Lauraville (4337 Harford Road, 410-444-4440), Nicole and Peter Selhorst's combination bookstore, de facto community center, enchanted garden and lunchroom. Customers might come for the fresh, homemade and healthy food - sumptuous chili and the best muffins anywhere - and leave feeling they've been nourished in other ways, too. The Selhorsts knew what they wanted Red Canoe to be, their neighbors supported them, and now it's real.
Everything feels right at Washington Village's charming Elfegne Ethiopian Caf? (821 Washington Blvd., 410-637-3207), which represents the vision of former mortgage broker Emu Kidanewolde. The menu is straightforward and smartly manageable for what is essentially a one-woman operation. Kidanewolde's homemade meat stews and vegetables are delectably good.
Word spread quickly about the robust pho at Mekong Delta (105 W. Saratoga St., 443 839-7815), the Vietnamese restaurant near the Enoch Pratt Free Library run by husband and wife Luan Nguyen and Tuyen Vo. The faculty lounge ambience felt just right for a place that rewarded the curiosity of its patrons with strong flavors and ingredients such as tripe and tendon, the things that other places have decided we won't like, or even try. Success came to Mekong Delta almost too quickly, but diners took long waits for ordered food in stride.
Its stark setting hasn't kept any fan of adventurous Asian cuisine away from Grace Garden (1690 Annapolis Road, 410-672-3581), that rare area Asian restaurant that assumes all of its customers have a taste for such flavors as sea cucumber, quail, fish noodles and stir-fried pork belly. These last two specialties of Chef Chun Keung Li I had heard about for years - they really are that good and worth the trip.
Folks at Isabella's, a sunny Little Italy spot with a walk-up counter, decided to carve out their niche with quality ingredients, such as imported meats that speak for themselves and fresh mozzarella made daily. Great things happen when such commitments are made, and the staff here seems like they look forward to coming to work.
You can sense the same commitment to quality and team spirit at Marcia Lucius' long-running Boheme Caf? (400 E Pratt., 410-347-9893).
The magic can happen in bars, too. It does at Highlandtown's Laughing Pint (3531 Gough St., 410-342-6544), where customers and staff seem genuinely happy about their neighborhood bar and its diverse menu. Riverside's Don't Know Tavern (1453 Light St., 410-539-0231), with its surprisingly upscale offerings (cioppini, duck with foie gras), and the raucous Turp's (1317 N. Charles St., 410-539-0231) in Midtown-Belvedere (burgers, pizza and tater tots here) are very different approaches to the American sports bar, but each works fine at its own sincerely intended level.
Coal Fire Pizza in Ellicott City (5725 Richards Valley Road, 410-480-2625) and Tahina's in Owings Mills (10450 Owings Mills Blvd, Suite 105, 410-363-2299) enjoyed early success by having been thoroughly thought through before they opened. Each was intended as a prototype for a potential chain - in Tahina's case, a healthy, Middle Eastern alternative to fast food - and customers at both places benefit from the owners' attention to detail and industry savvy.
Co-owners Bryan Riddle and Kelly Stewart got off to a good start with Harbor Que (1421 Lawrence St., 410-685-7675), their friendly barbecue joint in Locust Point. Everyone's waiting to see whether Yakitori One (2101 Maryland Ave., 410-332-1100) in Charles North will get itself opened back up again. The vision there was "fashionable dive," and it was executed perfectly.