Be careful - don't break the China," joked Charles, our affable, curly-haired waiter as he shuffled out foam plates for our bread like he was dealing cards.
This don't-take-us-seriously humor is part of the shtick at Corner Stable, a feeding trough of a restaurant where decor consists of Keno numbers lit up on a board and televisions tuned to the day's biggest sporting events.
The restaurant isn't about fine dining - it's about messy, delicious ribs, crab cakes and other local classics.
Charles greets customers by telling them the news of the day and always dispenses a joke or two along with the food. No wonder he's one of the most requested servers, according to owner Chip Reed.
Corner Stable has been serving up ribs and good cheer since it opened in 1972. And it's always had a bit of a swagger. Large letters affixed to the outside of the building inform everyone who drives by on York Road that it has the best ribs in Baltimore. Nothing subtle about that.
About two years ago, the original owners sold the restaurant - along with its top-secret ribs recipe - to Chip and Randy Reed and Joe and Jay Stonik. The new owners put in new bathrooms, added more light and made the dining area nonsmoking.
They also added soups, some salads and sandwiches and Randy Reed's crab cake recipe.
Basically, they shifted the focus away from the bar and toward the kitchen, making Corner Stable a more family-friendly destination, though it's still on the dark side and still sort of loud. The new focus makes sense, since any old bar can serve alcohol, but nobody does ribs and crab cakes the way Corner Stable does ribs and crab cakes.
The baby back ribs, flown in from Denmark, according to the menu, are unusually meaty. The Danes clearly know how to fatten up pigs. The ribs are slow-cooked so that the meat easily parts from the bone and are topped with a silky sauce that packs plenty of flavor without being overly tart or particularly sweet. Looking around at the other tables, I saw that ribs were by far the most popular item.
But the crab cakes are just as worthy of praise. At 8 ounces, they're larger than hockey pucks and made with nothing but jumbo lumps of meat. The moist interior, gently tweaked with just a few spices to bring out the sweetness of the crab, is held together with a tender golden crust.
Side dishes are a roster of classics done right - tangy, rich baked beans, cool, mild coleslaw, golden fries and green beans cooked with pork until they melt in the mouth.
We tried some other things too - broasted chicken breast was sort of like fried chicken - not a combination of broiled and roasted, as the name implies - with a crisp coating and a moist interior. Fried shrimp were greaseless, fresh-tasting and medium-sized.
Not everything is quite as wonderful. The tomato base in the crab soup is too sweet, the bread, though served warm, is soft and boring, and the salads are heavy on the iceberg. But nobody's going to Corner Stable for bread and soup.
Even after a big meal, though, they might want dessert, and Corner Stable offers everyone's favorites, including cheesecake, pecan pie, carrot cake and a brownie sundae. We had the brownie sundae, a no-frills combo of warm, chocolaty brownie, cool vanilla ice cream and whipped cream, and devoured it in minutes.
Charles, of course, gave us a hard time for eating too much. But when a restaurant masters those all-American classics, who can resist?
Where: 9942 York Road, Cockeysville
Open: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
Prices: Appetizers $5.99-$7.99, entrees $15.99-$23.99
Credit cards: All major
Food: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 STARS)
Service: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 STARS
Atmosphere: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS