Potbelly succeeds with its limited list of sandwiches

The chain began life as an antiques shop

Eats: dining reviews, Table Talk

February 05, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Potbelly Sandwich Works does only a few things, and it does them well. Diners can choose from 11 sandwiches, a couple of soups and a few desserts. Throw in some sodas, a bag of chips and a plastic container of coleslaw, and you've pretty much sampled everything the place has to offer.

The sandwiches all cost $3.79; desserts, drinks and sides are even cheaper.

Like many chain restaurants trying to give their corporate identity a touch of personality, Potbelly has a cute little history to peddle. A blurb on the menu and Web site tells us the company started in 1977 when a young couple decided to sell sandwiches from their Chicago-area antiques shop.

The rest, as the cliche goes, is history:

"Soon, people who couldn't care less about vintage glass doorknobs were stopping by to enjoy special sandwiches and homemade desserts in this unusual atmosphere."

The antiques shop soon became a sandwich chain, with stores in Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. In Maryland, the Annapolis location, which opened in October, joins restaurants in Rockville, College Park and Silver Spring.

Antiques are no longer sold, but the restaurants are meant to replicate the "unusual atmosphere" of that '70s-era shop, with details that include vintage-looking prints on the walls and a small black potbelly stove that squats, unused, in each location. The potbellies, according to spokesman Peter Nolan, are an homage to the stoves the original owners used to refurbish. (And you probably thought potbelly referred to your stomach after eating there.)

The Annapolis store, in the sprawling, upscale Harbour Center shopping center on Solomons Island Road, is large but cozy, with such comforting details as hardwood floors, a corkboard on one wall tacked with community notices and a cute inflated boat, the S.S. Potbelly, suspended from the ceiling. Wooden booths are nestled in nooks, and the gold floral wallpaper would look at home in a '70s suburban kitchen. The music is mellow '70s rock.

Patrons order and pay at the counter. It's an assembly line - first you order, then you shuffle a few steps to a second spot where you request toppings. A few more steps, and it's time to pay.

The sandwiches are served warm, on 6-inch sub rolls that are toasted when the order is placed. You don't get to choose the bread, but the sandwiches come with the usual lettuce, tomato, onion, etc. plus a delicious, vinegary, nose-cleaning hot pepper mix that's a Potbelly specialty. (More can be ordered on the side.)

I tried the meatball sub, the chicken salad and the roast beef, and found them all to be excellent. The meatballs, in particular, were flavorful, with a crisper exterior and more tender interior. The chicken salad was made of white meat, shredded small and dotted with celery, and the roast beef, though not rare, was lean and nicely seasoned.

I also ordered some vegetable soup and found it inferior to the sandwiches - a thin tomato broth with bits of overcooked vegetables and too much salt.

The dessert menu is longer and more varied than the sandwich menu and includes ice cream, shakes, malts and yogurt smoothies in a variety of flavors. The strawberry smoothie, served with a tiny ring-shaped butter cookie around the straw, was thick and tasted deliciously of berries. A scoop of vanilla ice cream was delightful.

Other desserts include a dream bar and a cookie that were nearly identical, both made with oatmeal and chocolate chips. These are cheap thrills, loaded with salt, butter and sugar, and baked so they are still slightly gooey in the middle. If you like this stuff - and you might as well admit that you do - get the dream bar, which is slightly richer than the cookie.

Potbelly Sandwich Works

Where: 2462 Solomons Island Road, Annapolis

Call: 410-224-2300

Open: Daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: AE, MC, V

Prices: All sandwiches $3.79; sides, drinks and desserts all less than $3

Food: ***

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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