Capital brings a lot to the table

Food: The Annapolis area offers a mouthwatering array of restaurants to fit any taste and any budget.


Annapolis is best known for its historic waterfront, the State House and the Naval Academy. But over the last several years, the Annapolis area has also become home to an eclectic and distinctive restaurant scene.

While the area's restaurant menus of years ago featured little more than crab cakes and oysters, diners today can also sample fine Italian, French, Japanese and Irish food - all within a short walk of the town's docks.

And in nearby communities such as Eastport and Severna Park, first-rate steak restaurants, rib joints and an exotic game grill can be found.

The largest cluster of restaurants as well as the best choices are still found in Annapolis. For many visitors, that means seafood, and, thankfully, several downtown restaurants still thrive on crab cakes, oysters and fish offerings.

Among them are Middleton Tavern, Riordan's, O'Brien's, McGarvey's and Griffin's, all similar in menu and price. If there's a major difference in the quality of such dishes as crab cakes from one restaurant to the other, I haven't discovered it.

That leaves little extras to distinguish the experience. For one of the best views, take a couple of minutes to walk toward the Eastport Bridge to Pussets Landing, inside Annapolis Marriott Waterfront Hotel.

As for other offerings at the traditional seafood places, I was always partial to the black bean soup and fried oysters at Middleton's, and the raw oysters at McGarvey's. And Riordan's is still the spot for a bowl of New England clam chowder and a burger - best served at the bar during NCAA basketball tournament time or during an Orioles game.

Diners interested in something other than the typical $19.95 crab cake platter can find plenty of choices, particularly if they're willing to walk up the hbill away from the dock.

If you like your seafood uncooked, check out Joss Cafe and Sushi Bar on Main Street. There might be a line at night for this first-rate restaurant, but usually not at lunch. The sushi-squeamish should try the (cooked) tuna salad and fried gyozo - crisp dumplings dipped in a tangy sauce.

Down the street is Nikko Japanese Restaurant, where the cooks prepare meals at tableside, spinning eggs and flipping spatulas. The result is a big, salty, yummy mess of beef, shrimp, vegetables and soy sauce.

Nearby is Cafe Normandie, which has thrived on Main Street for years. The pace, as in a French cafe, can be leisurely, so order a bottle of wine and relax and enjoy the Edith Piaf music. Don't pass up the mussels Provencal, but be sure to pack breath mints to fight off the garlic taste later on.

Across the street is Piccola Ronia, a soothing, white-table-cloth restaurant heavy on pasta and seafood dishes. The spicy arabiata sauce is always a winner, among many on the menu.

Meanwhile, several recent upstarts are pushing the boundaries of Annapolis dining in new directions.

Among them is the wonderfully named Yin Yankee Cafe, which offers such Asian fusion fare as Thai-style mussels and tempura fish and chips. The Vietnamese noodle bowl is a peppery delight, although the service at this Main Street restaurant can be erratic.

Aqua Terra, also on Main Street, is winning solid reviews as the only downtown restaurant offering hip American food. In recent years, downtown has been graced with several Irish pubs - Sean Donlon's on West Street. Castlebay on Main Street and the laid-back but efficient Galway Bay on Maryland Avenue. Its worth the walk from the dock to try a pint of Harp and Galway's shepherd's pie, a hearty mix of beef and vegetables topped with buttery mashed potatoes.

There's a similar feel at the Rains Head Tavern on West Street. Once a tiny one-room bar featuring sandwiches and beers from around the world, Ram's Head has blossomed into a lager empire, complete with brew pub and concert hall. Try the jambalaya while you're there.

When the state legislature is in session, between January and April, many lawmakers and visitors to Annapolis flock to the Maryland Inn's Threaty of Paris Restaurant, a no-nonsense, white-tablecloth fixture in the historic building at the top of Main Street.

On the other side of the State House sits another upscale restaurant - grand old Harry Browne's, with its top-notch wine list and fine food. But be warned: At night, Harry's is reserved for those who are either trying to impress their dates or who are on expense account, or both.

For the budget-conscious, there's always Chick and Ruth's deli, a quirky linoleum-heavy fixture on Main Street. The prices are right, and breakfast is a safe bet there, as are the milkshakes.

Right next door is the utterly unpretentious Acme Bar & Grill, which serves hamburgers, bar food and decent Mexican fare. If you're really trying to economize, head to the Market House at the dock, where you can grab fried chicken, sandwiches or fried oysters, all cheap.

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