You don't have to be a tourist to enjoy noisy Hard Rock

Bar food and distractions to beat the band

Eats: dining reviews, Table Talk

November 06, 2003|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If your fondest culinary desire is to eat a hamburger in the shadow of Madonna's torpedo-shaped bustier, then the Hard Rock Cafe is for you.

For the three or four readers out there who might not know, the restaurant combines rock memorabilia with American food. It's part of a chain, founded in 1971, that now has more than 100 restaurants all over the world. The one in Baltimore has dominated the Inner Harbor since it opened in 1997, with its 68-foot neon guitar on the Power Plant smokestack serving as a local landmark.

Inside the cavernous restaurant, a 1960 Cadillac hangs over the guitar-shaped bar, and the walls are covered with platinum records, photographs, costumes, guitars and televisions playing music videos.

As in other cities, the Hard Rock in Baltimore has long been known as a tourist attraction. But would locals want to eat there?

The answer is yes, under a few conditions. You'll probably enjoy Hard Rock if you have young children. Or if you've always wanted to see Elton John's shoes, a replica of a George Harrison guitar or some other rock morsel. Or if you're famished, you're in the Inner Harbor, and you want enormous plates of food.

You probably won't enjoy it, though, if you're looking for food prepared with any flair at all, in a setting with any resemblance to serenity.

Since the noise from music videos will drown out any temper tantrums or sibling spats, Hard Rock is great for families with young children. The staff is very patient with unusual requests from young ones. On a recent visit, a child in my group sent back his pasta because it was dusted with (gasp!) parsley. Our server happily whisked away the offending noodles and replaced them with plain ones at no extra charge.

Other kids in our group munched on minipizzas and chicken nuggets from a kid menu and were distracted by videos, crayons, a video game and the small retail store, which sells shirts and other stuff.

While the kids ate, the grown-ups went for a "jumbo combo" appetizer assortment. It was a lot of food, and ideal for sharing, but the entire plate arrived lukewarm. We liked the Santa Fe spring rolls, with a spicy black bean mixture, but the stuffed potato skins had turned tough, and the chicken wings lacked zing. Onion rings and chicken tenders rounded out the plate and would have been fine if they had been warmer.

The main-course menu offers the usual selection of burgers, salads and sandwiches, plus a few entrees like grilled shrimp fettuccine parmesan. My advice is to stick to the basics. That fettuccine dish featured overcooked shrimp and a sauce that tasted as if it had come out of a frozen dinner box. In this case, Stouffer's actually does come closer to home.

A burger was fine, big and sloppy and served with lettuce and tomato on a substantial bun. To make it even better, onion rings on the side were crunchy, not greasy, and actually warm. A Cobb salad was acceptable too, although the portion was ridiculously large. The key is to ignore the mountain of iceberg lettuce and tuck into the toppings: generous diced eggs, avocado, bacon, chicken, tomato and shredded cheese.

Chain restaurants always seem to serve enormous desserts, and Hard Rock is no exception. A slab of chocolate layer cake as tall as Elton John's shoes was moist and served with lots of whipped cream that balanced the hyper-sweetness of the chocolate frosting. A banana split with three scoops of ice cream was enough food to feed an entire band.

One note about Hard Rock. The restaurant doesn't take reservations, but it has a "priority seating" system. Sign up online at www.hardrock.com, and you will be given first shot at the next available table when you arrive.

Hard Rock Cafe

Where: 601 E. Pratt Street

Call: 410-347-ROCK

Open: Lunch and dinner daily

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers $3.79-$14.29, entrees $8.79-$19.99

Food: **

Service: ***

Atmosphere: **

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