For anyone raised in Baltimore a few decades back, Sidestreets, off Ellicott City's Main Street, is like a trip home.
The age-darkened, knotty-pine wall paneling takes you back to the dawn of suburbia, when Baltimoreans by the thousands converted their musty cellars to upscale "club basements" by lining the walls with knotty pine, and covering the floors with heavy tile.
So when owner Stephen Hargest was pouring money, sweat and nails into converting an old upholstery shop on Tiber Alley into a restaurant in 1982, knotty pine from Baltimore's Walbrook Lumber seemed natural.
For flooring, he and his former partners picked up some thick former bowling alley flooring -- cheap. "They even delivered it," he said. He bought sole ownership of the restaurant within two years, he said.
Of the knotty pine, Hargest said, "It was something we knew. We had basements that were knotty pine. I hated it originally, but the beauty of knotty pine is the way it ages."
The result is a comfortable feel for diners.
Sidestreets, sitting on a quirky cobblestone street with the babbling Tiber River nearby, has become one of the historic district's anchor businesses.
Now, couples and families sit comfortably in the several small rooms and the enclosed bar downstairs, and at a dozen more tables arranged around a large open stairway upstairs.
The basic fare are standard staples -- steak, chicken, seafood, pasta, soups and desserts, complemented by more adventurous specials, like those offered on a recent Saturday night -- Tornadoes of Beef with ancho chili, Atlantic Salmon stuffed with herb goat cheese and asparagus, or a appetizer soup such as Island Mussels in pumpkin broth with ginger.
The building began life in the 19th century as a small power plant, producing electricity for Main Street's first lights. Despite its longevity, Hargest was never more aware of the restaurant's fragility as he was in November, when fire broke out at Main Street Blues, which backs to his place, and destroyed four other businesses and four apartments.
"We were eight inches away from it [fire]," he said. "The rooftop from the apartment on the back of Main Street Blues is eight inches from my roof. What saved us is that Baltimore County [firefighters] threw four ladders up on my building. They were standing on it, so they weren't going to let it burn," he said.
Then, after the fire was out, Sidestreets suffered along with other Main Street businesses from the false perception that the whole street had burned down.
"Before the fire, business was up 25 percent. After, it was down 25 percent. It's a headline world," he said with a shrug.
In the long term, Hargest said, business in Ellicott City is good and getting better. But he complained that Howard County's newer crop of chain restaurants and giant discount stores are taking all the available workers.
"I'm an owner-operator. I still to this day cook a couple shifts a week," he said, proud that his core kitchen staff hasn't changed in at least six years.
Hargest started as a bartender at a now-defunct Catonsville restaurant and learned the restaurant business from the owners, who later acquired Cacao Lane, another Main Street bistro.
Now, years later, Hargest said, "I absolutely love it."
Where: 8069 Tiber Alley, off Main Street in Ellicott City; 410-461-5577.
Hours: 11: 30 a.m. to 9: 30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11: 30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9: 30 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers: $6.95 to $8.95; entrees: $13.95 to $21.95.
Credit cards: Master Card, Visa, American Express, Discover.