So close and yet so far.
Around the Beltway's many miles, no restaurant may be closer to the roadway than Snyder's Willow Grove, a pebble's skip off I-695 on Hammonds Ferry Road on the south side of town.
Yet, in years of driving around the road with no end, neither I nor my husband had ever stopped at Snyder's -- until a recent Sunday when we went there with our two daughters.
What we found surprised us. This is a fine, old Baltimore restaurant that cooks with respect for traditional methods, serves with a touch of hominess and generally lets you relax.
But, hey, hon, that's Bawlmer.
Take Exit 8 off the Beltway and the world changes lickety-split from eight lanes at 55 mph to two lanes in a slowed-down Anne Arundel County.
Snyder's dining room, off a long, mirrored hall, is a soothingly lit and windowless room, done in shades of mauve. It seems a long way from the Beltway.
The menu begins with a page of the restaurant's history -- from 1937, when Bump and Sis Snyder opened the Willow Grove, through a devastating Palm Sunday fire in 1944 to tropical storm Agnes in 1972, when the surging Patapsco River covered the building with 17 feet of water.
Sis is still active in the restaurant, the menu says, as are her sons and grandchildren, all "committed to the philosophy of serving you, the customer, in as friendly and accommodating a manner as possible."
So how are the Snyders doing at serving diners ''in the exacting manner which distinguishes mere food from cuisine''?
Pretty darn well, I'd say.
My husband began with a bowl of Cream of Crab Soup ($3.50); I, with a cup of the tomato-based Crab Soup ($1.75). Our jTC daughters devoured the complimentary sharp cheese spread and crackers. Devoured, that is, when they weren't helping my husband with his very flavorful, thick soup that seemed to have as many chunks of potato as crab. My soup was equally as good, but far more highly seasoned. Both were superb.
While the kids continued to work on the cheese -- our younger child called it ''finger cheese'' -- my husband and I moved on to colorful salads, served attractively on glass plates. As with many salads, they were good, but neither outstanding nor ordinary.
For entrees, I picked the Cold Seafood Platter ($13.95), something few restaurants offer, while my husband stayed with one of his favorites, Baked Crab Imperial ($14.50). Our older daughter had a hamburger($3.75), while the younger one had a cheeseburger ($3.95). There is also a children's menu of four dinners served with salad and vegetables.
My entree came on a large oval platter covered with a bed of lettuce, atop which were large lumps of crab, a very good tuna salad (with little mayonnaise) and two large steamed shrimp that were distinguished by their size but not their flavor. The accompanying home-grown tomatoes, pickle, hard-boiled egg and spiced apple ring helped make this a satisfying, different dish.
The included vegetable of the day, green beans, was canned and not worth eating.
The crab imperial was an excellent rendition. My husband swoons over an opulent crab imperial -- lots of lump crab, plenty of mayonnaise-touched sauce, beautifully browned. He swooned.
The entrees came with a crunchy loaf of bread.
Our daughters' burgers were large and good. They split an order of french fries (95 cents); the waitress said one would be enough, and she was right. The fries were good and not at all like the fast-food offerings most of us have come to expect.
After such satisfying food, we were surprised that the desserts, each $2.50, weren't very tasty. The Carrot Cake was moist but had little flavor; the Cheesecake was, likewise, bland; the Tuxedo Cake was the best of the lot, with a fairly deep chocolate flavor. None of us, however, finished our dessert.
The bill, with two cocktails, drinks for the kids, coffee and a very good $9.50 bottle of sauvignon blanc, was $76.34.
The service was pleasant and efficient. Because of that, because of the good food and because our children had been exceptionally well behaved, we wished we gotten off the Beltway and tried Snyder's years earlier.
*** Snyder's Willow Grove
Hammonds Ferry Road
Hours: 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Reservations: Recommended on weekends and for groups larger than six.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Accessible.
Smoking: Separate areas designated.