Critics are never supposed to say they're wrong. I know that But I'm going to say it anyway. I was wrong. All those years that I steadfastly vowed, "I never want to review restaurants," I didn't know what I was missing.
I used to say that having to observe, judge and write about a restaurant and its food would take the fun out of being there. And maybe they do -- a little bit. But being able to try any restaurant and anything on its menu -- at someone else's expense -- has its advantages. Advantages that make up for the fun it costs to pay close attention to what you're eating and where.
I've been reviewing Baltimore-area restaurants for one year. And in addition to finding the job enjoyable, I've come to some other realizations.
So, in observance of year one, I'm taking a break from dinner this week to share some of the things I've learned in the past 52.
* Dining out is expensive. Short of fast-food spots and corner bars, it's getting more and more difficult to find dinner for two for less than $40, still a sizable chunk of many budgets. There are good values around, especially if you dine early or take advantage of fixed-price specials, but dining out, basically, is not a cheap thrill.
* Dining out is fun. To sit back after a day's work, have a drink, peruse the menu and then chat over a drink while you wait for your food is truly enjoyable. Much more enjoyable than hurrying around the kitchen only to have to hustle through the cleanup to get on with the evening. This pleasure factor is probably the reason many people overlook the expense.
* Comfort is essential. More than the food, the service or even the price range, a restaurant's success seems to hinge on how comfortable it feels to how many people. This explains, perhaps, the continuing popularity of some of Baltimore's long-established restaurants. The food may be better elsewhere, but they make folks feel at home. Comfort is difficult to define, but it certainly means not being rushed, not feeling intimidated by a menu, a wine list or a haughty waiter and not sensing that you are at odds philosophically or demographically with fellow diners.
* Casual is "in." I'm old-fashioned and when my husband and I are paying $80 or $100 for dinner for two, we dress up. And I like those around me to do likewise. But that doesn't count anymore. A young man across from us in a tony hotel dining room wore jeans and a Simpsons T-shirt recently; a table-full of couples all wore sweaters and jeans on a Saturday evening in a rather elegant Fells Point inn.
* Children are also "in." The definition of a family restaurant is much broader than it used to be and young diners are likely to be almost anywhere. We even saw a toddler in a Saturday night crowd at The Polo Grill.
* Service gets an A. We have found friendly, accommodating waiters and waitresses all over town in all types of restaurants. The slackers, though memorable, have been few. Service does not seem dependent on price.
* Wine takes a toll. Few restaurants offer wine priced in line with their food. There is also a dearth of half-bottles. Some better restaurants, though, have a good selection of wines by the glass; you can expect to pay from $2.50 to $8 per.
What about the food we've had? Here are a few finds:
* In dessert there is truth. Many, many restaurants do not make their own desserts. In fact, you'll find Ms. Desserts and Mrs. Pose all over town. But you don't have to guess or be disappointed; most waiters are incredibly honest about what desserts are made in-house and where the rest come from. Ironically, homemade isn't always better.
* Good but not great. We have found more 3 1/2 -star restaurants than we expected, but we have yet to have a 4-star experience. Several meals have been excellent, but none has been flawless.
And I was wrong about one more thing: Caesar salad. Years ago, I had one that reeked of anchovy so I swore off. But some time in the past year, I tried one and now I'm hooked. Whenever I see one on a menu, I want to order it.
LHere are the restaurants that rated 3 1/2 stars in the past year:
Spanish Meson, Eastern Avenue
Danny's, Charles Street
The Polo Grill, The Colonnade
Tabrizi's, South Charles Street