If the true test of a good restaurant is its ability to maintain grace under pressure, then the Middleton Tavern passes easily. In fact, give the place a gold star or two.
This venerable restaurant, on the Annapolis City Dock, seemed unflappable on a recent Saturday night after a Navy football game. The wait for a table stretched to an hour and eager diners-to-be crowded the small vestibule, which doubles as a service entrance for the outdoor and upstairs dining rooms. And someone dared asked for a table for 12.
But the hostess, with multiple sheets of names and times, kept everyone in order and even helped set tables. The service was friendly and competent, the meal well paced and the food good. Obviously, the kitchen can handle a crowd.
When we found the bar too close for comfort or even cocktails, we, too, joined the vestibule crowd, shifting from side-to-side to accommodate waiters juggling bottles of blush and waitresses with tubs of romaine.
We soon realized this was not to be a quiet romantic dinner in this colonial establishment that can trace its roots to about 1740. But it turned out to be far more enjoyable than we would have guessed at that point.
When we had called several nights earlier, we were told the Middleton Tavern does not take reservations, but uses a "priority list." That probably saved us half an hour on the wait.
We were seated in the first dining room, at a small table between the door and The Oyster Bar. Not the pick of the house, but not the night to be picky. It detracted only slightly from our meal.
We began with Black Bean Soup ($3.75) and New England Clam Chowder ($4.95). The beans were still whole in the thick, zesty soup, which was served with side dishes of diced onions and lightly seasoned rice. A few spoonfuls of the rice made the soup even heartier and provided a buffer for the its heat. A nice touch.
The chowder was almost as thick as gravy and the bacon flavor a little strong for me. But the clams were large and plentiful and the vegetables tender.
For entrees, I chose Rock Fish Filet ($17.95) and my husband ordered Crab Remick ($18.95), a creamy crab imperial with bacon on top. Both came with the house salad, baked potato and tenderly cooked broccoli.
The salads were large, but not out of the ordinary except for the sliced mushrooms, which were so white and firm I thought they were some new vegetable. They were delicious. Middleton Tavern offers a limited dressing selection -- thousand island, french, blue cheese and a house-made honey mustard vinaigrette. I chose the house, which was slightly too sweet, but OK. My husband's blue cheese (75 cents extra) was not run-of-the-mill.
The broiled rockfish was flaky with an almost sweet taste. After the first bite, which included a bone, I found it delightful. My broccoli was chilly, though nothing else on my plate was.
The Crab Remick was beautiful to the eye and taste buds. The abundant crab -- no shells -- had a pink-tinged sauce that blended spiciness and buttery richness. The serving was large -- we took some home -- and the taste old-fashioned in that it didn't bow to "lite"-ness. The merchants and seafarers who frequented the Tavern in the 18th century were, no doubt, not counting calories.
They were probably not treated to the array of desserts we encountered either. Our waitress said they are not made in-house because there isn't space, but especially for Middleton's and another Annapolis-area restaurant.
My husband chose English Lemon Cake ($4), which had a lovely light flavor reminiscent of lemon candy and creamy frosting. I had Red Raspberries ($3.50). The delicious berries were topped with whipped cream. I had asked for a little, but our waitress said she just could not make the dish look right without more whipped cream. Pity.
Despite the continuing crowd, our service was impeccable. The busboy talked, the waitress noticed that my knife had been XTC carried away with my salad plate, and the waiter for the adjacent table joked with us and helped clear one of our courses. Although they rarely stopped, the servers didn't seem hassled.
Our dinner, with two cocktails, two coffees ($1.50) and a bottle of the house sauvignon blanc ($12) was $79. Only the clam chowder seemed over-priced.
Although the charm of the dining room, with its hanging herbs and pervasive hearth, was somewhat lost amid the parade of young midshipmen, old salts and pretty people who are everywhere in Annapolis, we liked the Middleton Tavern a lot.
Perhaps on a cold night in February we can soak up more of its charm.
*** Middleton Tavern
2 Market Place
Hours: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Full menu served until midnight.
Reservations: None accepted, but diners can put their names on a "priority" list, which means they get the next available table when they arrive.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Restrooms not accessible.
Smoking: Separate areas designated