One of the interesting things about my job is trying to figure why some restaurants, generally agreed to be fabulous, fall by the wayside while others pack 'em in night after night.
And it's not just location, location, location. Take Timonium, for instance. The Tuscany Grill, a likable Italian restaurant, closed its doors for good after less than a year in business. But the wait for a table at the Irish pub An Poitin Stil, which opened nearby, can be measured in hours, not minutes. I don't think it's just that Baltimoreans love Irish food more than Italian food.
And no theory that I can come up with explains the popularity of Gibby's Seafood in Timonium. It's not the new, hot place the way the Stil is. It doesn't serve exotic cuisine you aren't able to get anyplace else. And with most entrees in the $18 to $30 range, you can't really call Gibby's a bargain.
So why are people forming a line outside at 9:30 one weeknight?
The best reason I can come up with is Gibby's hard-shell crabs, steamed to order.
Hard-shells are available there year-round, from points south and locally in season. You have to wait 20 minutes or so after you order them, but they're worth it. These fat beauties aren't at all watery, as crabs can get when they sit after being steamed. And the balance of seasonings is appealing -- fiery, yes, but it's not so much heat you can't enjoy the sweet lumps of snowy crab meat.
There's another reason people might choose Gibby's over all the other places that have steamed crabs. Picking hard-shells is a messy business, but it doesn't mean that people necessarily want to eat their crabs in some dumpy crab house. At Gibby's you can take a table in the rollicking bar, or you can choose the two-tiered dining room in back with its blond wood, prettily set tables and flowery fringed lamps.
And yet another reason: The menu offers an impressive array of seafood choices beyond hard-shells. You can pick crabs while your friend, who hates them, has tuna Sorrentino or stuffed lobster tail.
I personally would stick with the crabs. Of course, I might start with a cup of Gibby's seafood bisque, creamy and full of fat lumps of crab and other shellfish. And I most assuredly would order the steamed combo of fat clams, mussels, spicy shrimp and oysters as enormous as they are tender.
But after that you take your chances.
You could luck out, as my friend did with a special, the flounder Elizabeth. The succulent fish was enhanced with diced artichoke hearts, tomatoes and prosciutto. Its white-wine sauce had been thickened, rather than just reduced in the pan, but the flavor was seductive.
True, the blackened cheese tortellacci (oversized tortellini) looked like black blobs on the plate and tasted worse. But they were offset by the jewel-green broccoli florets that decorated the dish.
So how could the same kitchen that produced that broccoli come up with gray-green mush for the vegetable of the day?
All the fish we tried, and we tried several, were wonderfully fresh and nicely cooked, unless you like your tuna rare. But some of the combinations were iffy. Creole swordfish started with a handsome piece of fish that was topped with large shrimp and lump crab meat, but the sauce was a murky jambalaya that detracted from it.
An Atlantic mixed grill combined salmon, swordfish and tuna fillets, each with its own sauce (dill, lobster and plum respectively). The sauces clashed, although any one of them alone would have been fine. (OK, plum sauce on fish didn't thrill me.) The fillets and their sauces were divided by enormous hillocks of garlic mashed potatoes, with a mammoth baked tomato balanced precariously on top.
Gibby's crab cake is a house specialty, and an excellent crab cake it is. But don't order it fried -- then it tastes of whatever has been fried earlier in the fat.
You could call Gibby's a seafood factory. It's fun even when every table is full, and everybody's having a good time. But don't expect great service. To give you one small example, our waitress asked my husband if he wanted a cup or a bowl of the seafood bisque, and asked him a second time before she left the table with our order. He said a cup both times, but she brought him a bowl anyway and seemed dumbfounded when we sent it back.
Desserts are an afterthought. Every one of them on the pastry tray that night was a rich, heavy cake or cheesecake, not baked on the premises and not -- at least the black bottom cheesecake and chocolate mousse cake we tried -- very good. But then if Gibby's were your typical Baltimore crab house, you wouldn't expect to get a great dessert anyway.
Food: ** 1/2
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: 22 W. Padonia Road, Timonium
Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$11.95; main courses, $12.95-$39.95
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *