At the end of the year, it's time to look at the past, steel the will and write resolutions. I've an $18 bottle of Sandeman's tawny port on the table for company, a fact I confess to prove I take to heart Jim Gabler's letter a few weeks back suggesting The Sun's restaurant reviewers write more often about wine. (Sandeman's isn't a connoisseur's port, but it's likable.) The fact is, I always drink wine with dinner, and I don't make resolutions without it.
First item of business: mortality. Given economic gloom, how many restaurants have closed? Only a few -- most notably, the Bistro, in Brown's Arcade on North Charles Street; Bolongo Bay, on Ritchie Highway in Severna Park; Chez Charles, near Charles Village; Chez Fernand, by the Shot Tower; Classics and Something Fishy, in Fells Point; Flamingo's, on North Charles Street, and the Pimlico, after 55 years at several locations, lastly Pikesville.
In almost every case, something new has come in or is on the way. When Fernand Tersiguel of Chez Fernand opened Tersiguel's in Ellicott City, for example, his restaurant next to the Shot Tower puttered along under new ownership for a while, and now has become Piazzaz; Foster's Oyster Bar, Restaurant and Market opened last month in Something Fishy's spot; Central Station went into Flamingo's, and the space that used to be Ethel's Place is coming back to life as Spike and Charlie's Restaurant and Wine Bar.
I give newcomers to the restaurant scene decent odds on entertaining us well if the restaurants reviewed for the first time in 1991 are any indication. Top of the heap was the Inn at Perry Cabin, in St. Michael's on the Eastern Shore, where Chef Scott Hoyland produced a flawless, fascinating meal -- the best in my ** five years on the job. Now owned by the Laura Ashley firm, the inn offers two prix-fixe dinners, one at $50 and one at $70, not including wine. If I had money for one and only one splurge in a year, I'd spend it there.
Someone feeling not so flush but still liking food, the Eastern Shore and pretty rooms should consider dinner at the Imperial Hotel in Chestertown, where Chef Daniel Turgeon prepares meals that are delightful in a less exalted and more casual way. His cuisine emphasizes fruits and vegetables, and moves away from cream, butter and mammoth chunks of meat.
For diners seeking a restaurant that's above all physically attractive, a couple of agreeable places bear checking out. Gypsy's Cafe, across from Hollins Street Market, shows off an enchanting restoration of an old, plain building, and serves a variety of good beers and neighborly, edible food. Weber's on Boston is a sleeker, slicker place, likable in a more professional, less idiosyncratic way. Its menu offers a more sophisticated and accomplished combination of soups, salads, sandwiches and simple entrees.
The most chic of the new eating places may be the Pavilion at the Walters, whose space in the Walters Art Gallery gives it a certain cachet. Its prices are reasonable, its food is pleasant, and the crowd is worth staring at. (Want an afternoon cappuccino? Go there.)
But the superstar of the year must be Tabrizi's, a gentle, smart, interesting cafe on South Charles Street near Cross Street Market. That its owners are succeeding so unambiguously demonstrates the power of taste and intelligence. Get things right and people will beat a path to your door.
I hope Andalucia, a Spanish restaurant in Rockville, has some of the same good fortune. Physically, it's plainer than Tabrizi's, but costs are moderate, and the people who own and run it are equally capable, knowledgeable and passionate about what they're doing.
New, noteworthy Oriental restaurants include Bangkok Oriental on Ritchie Highway, Busan Sushi (Korean) on Maryland Avenue, China Chefs in Columbia and India Grill on South Charles Street. Each offers exceptionally lively Asian dishes.
It wouldn't hurt to add Bolton Hill's Moscow Nights to the list of memorable places, for its Russian appetizers -- pelmenyi, vereniki, potato cakes and barley soup -- and the Mediterranean on Eastern Avenue, for unusually spirited Greek food.
So what are my resolutions? To continue to eat out primarily for amusement, stimulation and knowledge, and secondarily, for analysis and criticism. No one should eat a meal intending foremost to find flaws in it. Also, I resolve to mention more often that I visit a restaurant only once, hoping to experience a typical night so that what I write isn't cockamamie, but knowing that all kinds of things can go wrong. Even at Hampton's I've seen a tray of food cascade into a diner's lap.
But if resolutions had the power of magic, I'd resolve that nothing go wrong ever, for restaurants, me or anyone. I'd resolve to experience month after month a succession of leaf lettuce salads with extra virgin olive oils, pungent olives, subtle wines in crystal glasses, real whipped creams, lustrously fresh fish, and curiosity and pleasure all around.