Winterling's, 3200 Foster Ave., (410) 732-7731. Open Mondays and Wednesdays to Saturdays for lunch, Wednesdays Sundays for dinner, closed Tuesdays. AE, MC, V. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair access: no. Prices: appetizers, $2-$9; entrees, $6.95-$16.95.
Winterling's, for those of you who haven't lived in Baltimore most of your life, was a restaurant that in its heyday was right up there with Haussner's and Marconi's and Obrycki's as one of the city's best-loved eating places. Opened in 1923, the Highlandtown spot specialized in home-style cooking. It was known for its German dishes, such as sour beef and potato dumplings, but you could also get crab cakes and the like. And desserts. Big, gorgeous homemade desserts.
After the Winterling family sold the place and the next owners failed to make a success of it, the restaurant closed until this summer. The newest owners have decided to turn the clock back as best they can, offer homey food at reasonable prices, and, in short, try to make it as much like the original Winterling's as possible. Or so I was told when I called to make reservations.
I was skeptical when we got there and I saw the specialty of the day on the sandwich board outside: lake trout in orange sauce with wild rice. That didn't sound like the Winterling's I knew and loved. (Well, maybe loved is a little strong -- remembered nostalgically would be more accurate.)
Then I noticed the price: $9.95. Not bad.
We stepped into Winterling's bar, which gets my vote as Highlandtown's most appealing place to drink a beer. It has history, it has loads of charm, and it has a very fine Wurlitzer, rainbow lights flashing, revamped to play CDs.
I was so taken with the looks of the bar that the no-smoking dining room came as a sharp disappointment. No history here: The walls on one side are painted in a streaky contemporary design under a bank of mirrors. The overhead light fixtures are a little bright, and ceiling fans whir around them. I had been warned when I called, though. This redecorating, I had been told, was the legacy of the second owners. The smoking room I saw later is actually more appealing, although it, too, seems fairly impersonal.
We were the only people in the no-smoking dining room. (Which worried me until later when I realized that the restaurant wasn't really empty. Everyone else was smoking.) I wasn't reassured by a gratis hors d'oeuvre plate. It had olives and pickled peppers, carrot and celery sticks and a couple of chunks of tomatoes, all of which were fine. But most of the plate was taken up with half-cooked, slightly pickled cauliflower, broccoli and carrots. Strange.
I was beginning to dread the rest of the meal, because there's nothing worse than plain American food done really badly. (Plain American food is pretty much what Winterling's serves except for the "Nightly Fresh Seafood Special.")
Then our first courses arrived, and I revised all my opinions.
A cup of Maryland crab soup had a full-bodied broth with just the right spiciness, lots of fresh-tasting vegetables, a generous amount of real back fin and a sprinkling of chopped parsley for visual appeal.
Three large crab puffs were also generously full of white lumps of crab meat, appealingly seasoned, with a light, crisp exterior.
A half pound of shrimp had just been steamed with onions and Old Bay. (The onions are part of the dish.) The large, fresh shrimp, almost too hot to handle, were prettily arranged with toasted and buttered Italian bread, lemon wedges and cocktail sauce.
House salads were excellent, with interesting greens, blood-red tomatoes even though it was October, and delicious rings of yellow pepper. The salad dressings are pretty standard, but you can't have everything.
I was impressed.
I was a little less impressed by our main courses, although nothing was a total dud. The famous sour beef and dumplings, with its mildly spicy gingersnap gravy and delicious red cabbage, was pleasant enough. My memory probably invests the original with more pizazz than it actually had.
The special, the lake trout, was well-filleted and very fresh; but it could have been cooked a little less, and the combination of fish with the sweet orange sauce didn't appeal to me. Excellent wild and long-grain rice came with it, though, and the broccoli was fresh and not overcooked.
Winterling's offers lots of mom food at reasonable prices: meatloaf, corned beef and cabbage, fried chicken and homemade lasagna. I decided on pork chops, which our waitress recommended. These were nice-looking chops, but they'd been cooked a mighty long time, and the seasoning salt they were sprinkled with didn't help. The accompanying mashed potatoes were fine, although I wish someone had asked me if I wanted them covered with brown gravy; the promised "spiced apple" was canned apples doused with too much cinnamon.
Desserts aren't made on the premises, but the pumpkin pie had softly whipped real whipped cream -- nothing out of a can -- and the gold cake with fudgy chocolate icing will take you right back to when Winterling's was famous for its desserts. The coffee, however, was too strong and too old, and the tea water was lukewarm at best.
Next: Orchard Market