Hersh's Orchard Inn is a Saturday night kind of place. A little bustling. A little sophisticated. A little luxurious. The kind of special-treat place that has always brought vibrancy to downtown eating.
But wait! Hersh's is not downtown. It's on Joppa Road in Towson.
Specifically, that franchise-rich section of Joppa Road just west of Loch Raven Boulevard where you can dine, get gasoline, buy tires and stay the night without ever encountering an unfamiliar name, even if you've never been there before.
But turn into the Orchard Inn's parking lot and there's a change in atmosphere. Our first clue was the "Valet Parking" sign. Nice touch; the first of many.
Once inside, you lose all connection with the neoned, suburban strip outside. There are no windows. Rather, there are windows, but they are closed off by the interior walls. Once, undoubtedly, diners could see the world outside. Given the world there is to see now, there's no loss.
What you see, in closely packed dining rooms and a cocktail lounge, is a restaurant decorated in subtle earth tones with brass accents. Sort of generic modern restaurant design, but carried off with a bit more class than usual.
My husband and I waited briefly in the bar until our table was ready, when a waitress approached, put our glasses on a tray and took us to our places. Nice touch. No maitre d' calling out, as so often happens, "Smith, party of four."
Waiting for us on our table was a basket of crisp, buttery bread rounds made without concession to cholesterol. Sinful? Yes. Sinfully good.
As I munched contentedly, my husband sipped a cup of superb crab soup ($3.25). One taste and his eyes lit up. Not from the seasoning but from a taste that reminded him, he said, of the first crab soup he had ever had after moving from the Midwest to Maryland years ago. Food that is both delightful in its own right and pleasantly evocative is a treasure.
From that we moved to a Caesar Salad for two ($7.95). It was good but suffered slightly from having a creamy, not oil-based, dressing. Billed as "an American classic skillfully prepared at your table," it was really prepared several tables away; that's how narrow the aisle behind our table was.
For my entree, I picked an interesting-named dish, Chicken Contadine ($13.95). Interesting name; interesting taste -- an obviously good breast topped with artichoke hearts, tomatoes and mushrooms in an herb sauce. It was a testament to the premise that good vegetables, prepared simply, lend a magnificent taste to meat, poultry or seafood.
My husband had what is billed as the house specialty, Lobster & Crab Deep Dish ($20.95). Giant chunks of lobster and crab mixed with mushrooms and pimentos and topped with a magnificent imperial sauce. As with my entree, it was a winning marriage of flavors.
Both my husband and I had green beans with our entrees. In 10 months of reviewing, we have been pleasantly surprised at how many restaurants turn green beans into something special. This was another example of that; another nice touch.
For dessert, I had a sensuously rich Hot Fudge Sundae ($2.75). It was big enough for two; I ate it anyway. My husband had a slice of Chocolate Amaretto Cake ($3.50), even though amaretto is a flavor he usually stays away from. This cake, however, looked too inviting to skip. He was rewarded with the faintest hint of amaretto, so faint it complemented rather than obscured the chocolate.
In all, with two drinks and a bottle of wine, the bill was $84.42.
As for the service during our meal, it was not quite up to the food. Our waitress seemed so busy with other tables that the attention we got was infrequent and fleeting. We had the feeling that if she had been less busy, she would have stopped by more often and stayed a bit longer.
When we arrived, early on a recent Saturday night, most of the diners in our room were "sixtysomething" and older. Interestingly, the crowd became younger -- but not smaller -- as the night wore on. By the time we left, stylishly dressed, thirty-ish couples predominated.
*** Hersh's Orchard Inn
1528 E. Joppa Road
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Limited access.
Smoking: Separate areas designated.