Jennings Cafe: perfect throwback

Catonsville restaurant little changed since 1958

Eats: Dining Reviews/Hot Stuff

December 02, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jennings Cafe, a trapped-in-time restaurant and bar on the main drag in Catonsville, might be best known as the employer of Peggy Bailey, lauded by Zagat's restaurant guide as "Baltimore's best waitress" and featured last May on NBC's Today Show.

Bailey was hired about 20 years ago by Omar Jennings, the third generation of the Jennings family to own the cafe since it opened in 1958. Bailey's efficient and good-natured service is just one reason so many customers return to Jennings day after day.

Another reason is the reliable old-Baltimore food, especially the homemade sides and desserts made by Wanda Jennings, mother of Omar.

Who could resist her coconut cake, a yellow square topped with silky-sweet white icing and shredded coconut? Or potato salad with just the right amount of creamy dressing over barely firm chunks of potato? Who would want to?

On a recent bright fall day, the interior of Jennings was dark as Bailey and the other servers, all of them no-nonsense women of a certain age, carried plates, took orders and bantered with customers in the restaurant's two dining areas - an expanse of tables next to the long bar, plus a separate room known as Peggy's Parlor.

At one table, a business-suited young man and his lunch partner discussed a spreadsheet on an opened laptop between bites of sandwiches. At another, a woman with perfectly coifed white hair nursed a cocktail in a long-stemmed glass.

Omar Jennings says as much as 70 percent of his customers are regulars, and many of them eat there every single day.

Though the main courses at Jennings are just fine, the sides deserve particular notice. A mildly sweet-tart salad of thin-sliced cucumbers and onions, a crunchy, sparingly dressed coleslaw and crisp french fries are all above reproach.

Entrees go from the simple - tuna sandwich, BLT, kosher hot dog or scrambled egg sandwich - to the slightly less simple - liver and onions, veal parmesan and fried chicken, for example. Probably the most ambitious items on the menu are veal marsala and baked orange roughy.

I particularly liked the barbecued baby back ribs, basted in a thick, tomato-based sauce. The meat was so tender that it parted easily from the bone, filling my mouth with a glorious combination of smoky pork and slightly sweet sauce.

Crab fluff, basically a crab cake that's been battered and deep-fried, was lighter and less greasy than one might imagine but would have been even better with larger lumps of crab. Even smaller crab bits also marred an otherwise solid Maryland crab soup, with plenty of vegetables swimming in a thin, peppery broth.

Innovation is not exactly a strong suit at Jennings, but the fried oysters were somewhat unusual. Instead of being individually fried, two or three whole oysters are fried together in a single skin of batter. This treatment didn't strike me as an improvement over individually fried oysters, but it was certainly acceptable, and Jennings says the dish is one of the restaurant's top sellers.

Jennings hasn't changed much over the years, but it has evolved a little. The room now known as Peggy's Parlor was added about five years ago, and several menu items, including cheese steak and Reuben sandwiches, are relatively new.

"It's changed a little bit," Omar Jennings said. "But pretty much it's been the same. We stick to what we do best."

The formula has worked for three generations. It's too early to tell whether the fourth generation, now in high school, will continue the Jennings tradition.

Jennings Cafe

Where: 808 Frederick Road, Catonsville

Call: 410-744-3824

Open: Mondays through Saturdays for lunch and dinner, closed Sundays

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Appetizers $3.25-$6.25, entrees $4.95-$19.95

Food: ***

Service: ****(of course)

Atmosphere: ***

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