Baltimoreans love their old-fashioned restaurants, and when one of them disappears, like Haussner's, Harvey's or Marconi's, widespread mourning breaks out.
After just one visit to Eastern House Restaurant, it's a mystery to me why it so seldom comes up in our conversations about lovable, locked-in-time restaurants. It can't be that Eastern House is completely anonymous, though, or how else could it have survived in the same location for 44 years, under the same ownership even? And even before establishing the Eastern House, its owners, Harriet Antonas and her son Nick, operated a smaller lunchroom around the corner from the longtime Highlandtown location.
There are really two main categories of sweet old restaurants, the fully functional and the decrepit, and Eastern House definitely belongs in the former category, and right at the top. The neat-as-a-pin interior, with its plush carpeting and banker's-green booth upholstery, reminded one friend of those old coffee shops that used to be everywhere but have completely disappeared. But it's a little grander than a coffee shop; for one thing, up front there's a bar, which looks like a nice place to get a quiet dinner and maybe a boilermaker. Yes, think "Mad Men," if "Mad Men" ever once got something right.
Eastern House is open seven days a week, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a new, neatly typed list of daily specials is printed every day. (In fact, it is open today, Thanksgiving.) The large menu includes hardly anything that people weren't enjoying in good restaurants 40 years ago: veal cutlets, Porterhouse steaks, French onion soup served in a crock. The exceptions are truly inescapable appetizers like mozzarella sticks and chicken tenders. Then there are groupings of Italian and pride-of-kitchen Greek specialties, and it's these last that you want to keep your eye on.
The food is prepared traditionally, seasoned modestly and presented without affectation (and definitely without irony).This is food that people enjoy but that doesn't scream for attention. You will like what you're eating, but you'll be talking at the table about things other than food, which is what polite people did in the old days. We tried four different soups of the day: lentil, chicken noodle, navy bean and Maryland crab. Each was convincingly home-cooked, the way a very good but not adventurous home cook would make it. Lentil spices for lentil soup, bean spices for navy bean.
Each entr?e, too, was nearly the platonic version of itself, to the point where it felt as if you weren't eating baked stuffed green peppers, but the idea of baked stuffed green peppers. This was true of broiled shish kebab, served with a rice pilaf and baked fresh carrots, very tender and tasty. Served elsewhere, you might fault it with being boring - here, it's perfect. A chicken potpie is an exception. It arrives not in a crust but in a casserole dish, accompanied by biscuits. Not bad this way, but the other way is better. A ground-sirloin baked moussaka here, on the other hand, is much better than you imagined, with an exceptional b?chamel sauce and admirable restraint with the cinnamon and nutmeg that make some moussaka taste like holiday candles.
The young woman who gave us such sweet and conscientious service (refills galore) told us that some desserts are brought in from New Systems bakery and others, like a not-too-sweet rice pudding and a slightly tired carrot cake, are homemade. We waited just a few minutes for her to come back to pick up our check and then realized that this is the kind of place where you pay at the cash register, and buy a candy bar from out of the case.
The Antonases recently sold the Eastern House, but they're still around helping to smooth the transition. Everyone, new and old owners, is promising that things will stay the same. They should.
On the menu
* Soup of the day - $2.25
* Baked stuffed oysters appetizer - $12.95
* Chicken potpie en casserole - $5.95
* Baked moussaka - $7.95
* Baked stuffed green peppers - $9.95
* Broiled shish kebab - $13.95
Eastern House Restaurant
Where: : 3708 Eastern Ave.
Contact: : 410-342-7117
Hours: : 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Appetizers: : $3.95 - $12.95
Entrees: : $5.95 - $28.95
Credit cards: : MC, Visa, Amex
Food: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
Atmosphere: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
Service: : *** (3 stars)
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]