The Bowman has a big parking lot. Two of them, in fact. Yet, on a recent Monday, as my husband prowled around for a space, another driver stopped next to our car and motioned for my husband to roll down his window.
''What's going on tonight? Something special?'' the other driver asked.
It turned out that the full lots were a result of the three private parties in The Bowman that night -- and a nearly full dining room.
Full parking lots probably aren't special at The Bowman, which is just outside The Beltway on Harford Road. It seems to enjoy a good reputation and a loyal clientele.
We found The Bowman a bit less special this time than we had in past visits. But it's still an inviting, attractive restaurant.
When my husband and I first visited the restaurant perhaps a dozen years ago, we were impressed by how well trained the staff was. Through the years, the staff routinely showed a professionalism expected only of fancier restaurants. We also came to expect beautifully, traditionally prepared food.
Last week, we thought the service had slipped a bit and the food had become somewhat uneven.
Still good, mind you, but not quite as good as we had remembered. The menu has some nice features, especially if you're watching fats and calories. Entrees are served with a choice of two side dishes: salad, vegetable or potato. Also, there are several offerings labeled ''heart healthy"; among them are a 6-ounce steak and a vegetarian dinner.
We began with Stuffed Mushrooms ($4.95) and French Onion Soup ($3.25).
The mushroom caps were large, tender and brimming with delicious crab. Over all was a thick coating of mayonnaise that had been broiled. It looked beautiful, but the thickness of the mayonnaise detracted from the lovely, Dijon-touched blend of mushroom and crab.
The soup, on the other hand, was far above average, with a rich, buttery edge and lots of provolone melted on top.
Salads, which were served with our entrees, were fine. My husband raved over the blue cheese dressing (75 cents extra), which he described as much milder, with less mayonnaise than usual and with a huge chunk of blue cheese. I had the house dressing, a Dijon vinaigrette, which was a bit oily but with a nice mustard edge.
The entrees were a mixed bag.
My husband found his Strip Steak ($16.95) among the best he has had in this area and nearly as tender and as flavorful as a good Midwestern steak. The french fries were a fine accompaniment.
But my Broiled Scallops ($11.95) were no better than average.
Broiled scallops can either be individually browned and cooked in just enough butter and just long enough to bring out their best flavor and texture. Or, they can be piled up and sauced with a much thinner baste. The result: just a hint of the beauty, taste and texture of what the dish can be.
There were a lot of scallops in the dish. They were not overcooked, but I would have preferred fewer, but better.
We were also served a basket of rolls, which were acceptable, and muffins, which were wretchedly dry.
For dessert, I had the one in-house item available that night, Rice Pudding ($2.25). My husband had a Mocha Torte ($3.75), made, our waitress said, ''by a little German lady.''
She seemed to have made it several days earlier. At least that would account for its dryness and, perhaps, its weak flavor. My rice pudding was satisfactory, but not great. The rice was a bit hard and the pudding gooey. It also was served ice cold, which usually detracts from the flavor.
As for the service, our waitress seemed a bit less poised than those we had encountered on earlier visits and more than a bit forgetful. It took my husband five requests for more water before it came. She was, however, friendly throughout the meal and quite candid about the desserts.
The Bowman's atmosphere and appearance has remained inviting. The dining room is warm and moderately dark with booths along one wall, a fireplace at one end and quality, brass ceiling fans turning gently. It has a casual, relaxed feel that seems to attract diners of all ages.
The prices, too, seem to have stayed reasonable, particularly for the ample portions. Our bill, with two cocktails, two coffees and two glasses of Chablis, was just more than $58.
Hours: Lunch served Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 2 p.m.; dinner served Monday through Thursday from 4:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 4:30 to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 2 to 9 p.m. Lighter menu served in lounge all day.
Credit cards: Major credit cards accepted.
Handicapped access: Accessible.
Smoking: No separate areas designated