Some restaurants serve meals; others create dining experiences. Cunningham's, the newest addition to the Towson dining scene, is the latter.
Bagby Group -- which also owns Harbor East favorites Ten Ten and Fleet Street Kitchen -- knows a thing or two about running a successful restaurant. That knowledge is apparent immediately after stepping into the well-appointed dining room at Cunningham's, which balances drama and comfort both on the menu and in the space.
The main dining room is divided by a few low partitions and illuminated by a variety of glamorous fixtures. Yet comfortable chairs and rustic wood bring the décor back down to earth.
Creative drinks, made with care at the bustling bar, set the tone. Our favorites included the Brooklynite, a well-balanced blend of dark rum, honey, lime and bitters, and the County Line Mule, a tart and spicy mix of vodka, Pimm's No. 1, blackberry liqueur and ginger beer served in an icy copper mule mug.
Don't miss smaller plates, such as toasts topped with soft butternut squash and creamy ricotta. It's jazzed up with a splash of cider vinegar and a drop of maple syrup -- a gorgeous example of sophisticated flavors playing nice with comfort food.
Pretzel-encrusted fried oysters, served over a powerful combination of mustard fruits, cabbage and sauerkraut chowder, were similarly impressive.
A "market plate" of smoked pears, roasted cabbage and rutabaga puree was seasonal and fresh yet lacked excitement.
Entrées showed skill, from tender short ribs over cheddar-flecked cauliflower "grits" to gently seared grouper with succotash, parsley root puree and bacon.
Simple steak frites were cooked and seasoned nicely, though the presentation -- with the frites in a copper cup set on a napkin on the plate — made it difficult to make the most of the steak's juiciness.
A vegetarian-friendly dish of ricotta gnudi tossed with chanterelles, pumpkin seeds, rosemary and butter surprised us with its heft and full flavor.
Cunningham's is impressive but not perfect. The bathroom is accessible through the harshly lit hall of the office building in which the restaurant resides; instead of a well-appointed ladies' lounge, we found a sterile workday bathroom.
And the service is unpolished. A handful of glitches -- the delivery of the wrong bottle of wine and food runners who couldn't identify ingredients -- signaled that the staff could use more handholding. Our servers lacked the polish that this restaurant deserves.
The wine error was made more glaring given Cunningham's state-of-the-art ordering system: Diners browse the wine list on an iPad. With that much technology behind the system, it was hard to understand why we received a bottle that was completely incorrect.
For dessert, we loved a trio of ice creams -- the cinnamon pecan, chocolate and Vietnamese coffee options packed powerful flavors. But an almond cake was dry and bland.
Those complaints couldn't zap all the energy out of the evening, though. Basking in the soft glow of the room, surrounded by beautiful design and gorgeous food, it was easy to focus on the great elements of the meal — and let the problems slink off into the shadows.
The vibe: Dramatic light fixtures and gorgeous interiors dress up Cunningham's office-building space, while rustic denim-and-vest outfits on the waitstaff keep the atmosphere unpretentious. It's a space that feels right for special occasions — or any other Friday night.
You'll fit in wearing: Most of Cunningham's clientele was dressed fairly casually -- think jeans and button-downs for men and jeans with heels on ladies. But if you're in the mood, dress up more -- the space and menu can handle it.
Don't miss: Pretzel-encrusted fried oysters, served over mustard fruits and tart sauerkraut chowder, captured -- and elevated -- traditional Pennsylvania Dutch flavors. With a variety of textures and a terrific flavor profile, the appetizer was captivating.
Best for kids: Though Cunningham's offers a handful of pasta and flatbread dishes that are child-appropriate, the overall vibe is grownup. This might be a good night for a babysitter.
Price range: Appetizers $9 to $13; entrées $29 to $43. Accepts all major credit cards.
Parking: Complimentary valet accessible by building's parking garage.
1 olympic place | towson | 410-339-7730 | cunninghamstowson.com
Mon.-Thurs. 5 P.M. to 10 P.M., Fri.-Sat. 5 P.M. to 11:30 P.M., Sun. 5 P.M. to 9 P.M.