8 spots for pampered service, reasonable prices

EATS

Dining For $25 Or Less

December 27, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to The Sun

This year, for my annual review, I'm going to focus on service.

A smile and a little attention go a long way in the restaurant business, making even the most casual meal out seem like a treat.

While reviewing inexpensive restaurants in 2007, I've been privileged to dine at many establishments that made me feel welcomed, even pampered. Sometimes the most casual restaurants -- the ones where the owners are also the chefs and the wait staff -- shine at delivering excellent service where fancier restaurants falter.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Alabama BBQ Company --(4311 Harford Road, 410-254-1440): Louise Pantall and Jay Belle, owners of this tiny barbecue joint in Lauraville, make everything themselves and serve their classic barbecue with a smile. Try the dry-rubbed ribs, the fried-while-you-wait potato chips and Pantall's crazy-good desserts, including old-fashioned whoopee pies and creamy Key lime pie.

Brian Boru --(489 Ritchie Highway, Severna Park, 410-975-2678): This suburban sibling to Galway Bay in Annapolis boasts a relaxed professionalism both in the kitchen and among the wait staff. The Irish menu includes shepherd's pie, fish and chips, and a delicious seafood stew loaded with salmon, scallops, shrimp and clams. Our waitress didn't hover but was always there when we needed her. And her recommendations were spot-on.

Desert Cafe --(1605 Sulgrave Ave., Mount Washington, 410-367-5808): This Middle Eastern restaurant in the trendy heart of Mount Washington exudes charm with a capital C, from the brightly painted front porch to the courtly waiter who makes customers feel like the bright spot in his day. Fresh ingredients and clever spicing bring dishes such as a mango curry chicken salad and spanikopita to new heights of excellence.

El Rinconcito Peruano --(1801 E. Lombard St., 410-276-2036): The staff at this casual Peruvian restaurant go out of their way to make newcomers feel welcome, freely offering samples of unfamiliar dishes and drinks, such as chichi morada, a sweet beverage made of purple corn, pineapple, lime and cinnamon. Items such as roasted chicken and ceviche are self-explanatory, but you won't go wrong if you take the owner's advice and try the lomo saltado, a stir-fry of tender beef with onions, tomatoes, yellow pepper strips and carrots.

La Fiesta Grill --(9022 Church Lane, Randallstown, 410-655-7630): Looking for a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that serves yummy and cheap chicken wings and enchiladas and treats customers like royalty? Then step right up to La Fiesta Grill, a tiny cement block of a restaurant off Liberty Road. That warmth and charm emanating from behind the counter come from Tim Diggs, the owner, who effortlessly keeps the flow of orders moving, cooking ribs and chicken on the grill behind the counter while greeting every customer like a long-lost friend.

The Life of Reilly --(2031 E. Fairmount Ave., Butcher's Hill, 410-327-6425): Yummy pub food such as crab cakes and a Guinness-infused beef stew are served in a cozy space with exposed brick walls and warm wood floors. The food is as pretty as the interior, and the attentive-without-hovering service is just right.

Mustang Alley's --(1300 Bank St., second floor, Little Italy, 410-522-2695): A great idea, well-executed. Mustang Alley's combines a bowling alley with a bistro-style restaurant and a lively bar area. Attentive and happy servers add to the fun of the place, as does a menu of American comfort food, sometimes presented with a wink, as in macaroni and cheese with chunks of lobster or a hot dog and beer "sampler" that pairs three different dogs with three draft beers.

Smedly's --(600 S. Wolfe St., Fells Point, 410-563-7545): The owners of this classic coffee shop make the soups, muffins and other food from scratch, man the counter themselves, serve really good coffee and support local artists. Board games, newspapers and wireless Internet service are available to encourage lingering.

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