It's not often, especially on the casual-dining beat, that you get to review a venerable institution such as Alonso's. Known for its massive burgers, pizza with a million toppings and a varied, plentiful and interesting beer selection (offered long before beer menus were fashionable), this Roland Park eatery has had a reputation as a mainstay of laid-back Baltimore dining for a long, long time.
In the past few years, Alonso's has undergone a number of changes -- all for the worse, we were assured by the restaurant's devotees. In 1998 it was taken over by Classic Restaurant Management, the company that owns Loco Hombre (right next door) and Classic Catering, among other things. Last December, Alonso's began serving Italian fare.
We brought friends on our foray to Alonso's, and they brought baggage. Once loyal patrons, they had been turned off by a bad experience there about a year ago but wanted to try it again. We never went there much, so our slates were clean. We all left full and very pleasantly surprised.
Where to begin? Well, for those of you who have been going to Alonso's since you were in middle school, the burger is still on the menu. It's still very big, juicy and slow to come from the kitchen. The accompanying fries are, believe it or not, exquisite -- thin, hot, salty and fresh.
Pizza is still on the menu, too, but it's more on the nouvelle side -- thin-crusted and topped with anything from barbecue chicken to seafood. We tried a vegetable pizza, one evening's special, and found the combination of fresh, crisp vegetables and cheeses on a handmade crust to be a winner.
Far from simply duding up a hole-in-the-wall eatery with fancy-sounding foreign dishes, the menu has been expanded in a way that enhances the neighborhood-bar character of the place: appetizers of clams, mussels, fried calamari or bruschetta are reasonably priced and make for excellent, high-quality bar snacks.
We tried Little Neck clams with marinara sauce: The clams were small, sweet and tender, the marinara simply prepared, appropriately unadulterated and delicious. Bruschetta toasts were slathered with a paste of chick peas and green-olive tapenade that was perhaps on the subtle side, but enjoyed by all. Skip the basket of focaccia; the bread lost something in the translation from Italian, perhaps from being unheated.
An excellent warm spinach salad with wild mushrooms and prosciutto would have made an adequate supper by itself -- with a glass of wine. Antipasto misto, ordered from the specials, was a slice above the usual salami plate and included roasted garlic, artichokes, very fine olives, prosciutto and fresh mozzarella. Our final appetizer (whew!), seared sea scallops with haricots verts, was as dainty and un-tavern-like as it sounds. But quite palatable.
After ordering and eating appetizers, pizza and 1 pound of cheeseburger, we wound up trying only one entree from a list of six or seven delectable-sounding dishes, including grilled lamb sirloin with goat cheese ravioli and roast breast of free-range chicken with wilted arugula.
Our choice, risotto with roasted vegetables, was very good, the rice cooked al dente, mixed with squash, roasted peppers and wild mushrooms. We have a minor complaint with the lack of creaminess in the overall texture, but that didn't keep us from enjoying the leftovers the next day.
Alonso's also offers a variety of lunch-based items such as sandwiches and calzones, which will undoubtedly work at other hours. For those of you 21 or older, the bar is still there, or some of it anyway. It's been cut in half and moved to make more room for tables. The beer selection is still outstanding, and you can still buy packaged goods from the dank-looking little section at the front. You can no longer smoke at the bar, which makes things much more pleasant for diners. The red banquettes, alas, are gone.
While we're not overly fond of the new sports motif (signed, framed and spotlighted jerseys on the walls), we're glad the lighting is now bright enough that you can read the menu.
The changes at Alonso's are copious and, as far as we're concerned, all for the better. And clearly we are not the only people who think so. Alonso's is full even on Monday nights. Long weekend waits should be somewhat diminished by the addition of a new second-floor dining room opening within the next month or two.
415 W. Cold Spring Lane
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa
Prices: Appetizers $2.95 to $7.50; entrees $5.95 to $21.95
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***: Fair or uneven **; Poor *