Dining gems shine

It's the little things that make all the difference at these area restaurants

December 25, 2008|By Richard Gorelick | Richard Gorelick,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Perfection would be nice, but life, and bargain dining, seldom are. Often, it takes a happy-go-lucky outlook to find the true value in an evening out. It can be discovered sometimes in the specialty of the house, that one great thing that keeps diners coming back, but just as often in the ambience, the service and the management. I think of them as "grace notes," those small but essential things that made an average outing very good and a very good one exceptional. Here are some examples from six months of inexpensive dining.

* For instance, at Grano (1031 W. 36th St., 410-869-3429), Gio Troia's disarmingly simple Hampden pasta joint, it's the intimate setting that makes everything taste better. The precious few counter stools are perched just feet from the stoves, where Grano's cooks are putting together pastas and sauces. (The meaty bolognese is our favorite.) Troia himself is a constant and jovial presence at this popular new storefront BYOB.

* Similarly, at Fells Point's tiny Burritos en Fuego (809 S. Broadway, 410-558-0858), it's the esprit de corps behind the line that makes carrying out its fine burritos, quesadillas and tacos such a pleasure. Every day, patrons cram into this tiny space - yes, just like that Marx Brothers movie - but because the staff treats each other so well, the customers wait patiently, adroitly making room for new patrons to give their order. Baltimore's not always so charming, but here it is.

* Towson's Fresh Fresh Seafood (507 York Road, 410-821-3474) is all about the gracious way that Darlene and Ricky Parker run their small storefront business. I think this is the only time I've been asked whether I wanted my broccoli "soft or crunchy." Ricky Parker cooks fresh seafood dishes, including a big and wide crab cake; Darlene is out front, providing white-glove service.

* It's not just mom-and-pop places that dispense cups of kindness. At Power Plant Live's new Luckie's (10 Market Place, 410-223-1105), the staff seem invested in their work. Maybe it's because a core group of them worked together at Towson's Vin with general manager Billy Peterson and chef Justin McGuann. By anticipating needs, they make what could have been a slick joint feel neighborly.

* Teavolve (1401 Aliceanna St., 410-522-1907) and Eden's Lounge (15 W. Eager St., 410-244-0405) impress with their alluring spaces. Teavolve, on the border of Fells Point and Harbor East, is new, modern and mellow, a perfect space for whiling away the afternoon with some waffles and Wi-Fi. Eden's Lounge, up in Mount Vernon, is a silky smooth arena for sophisticated lounging and dabbling in updated versions of Ethiopian food.

* Sometimes, it is the food. Betty and Jake's, in Catonsville (1016 Ingleside Ave., 410-744-9235) might not be the friendliest place in town or the prettiest, but the shrimp-salad sandwich and hamburger, served on paper plates, make the mouth water. The new Hudson Street Stackhouse (2624 Hudson St., 410-342-0592) has a contender with the Dominic, a prince of a prosciutto-and-pesto sandwich. Eating dinner in the pretty dining room at Soup's On (11 W. Preston St., 410-528-1003) can be lonesome (most people carry out, I think), but the soups, salads and quiches at this Mount Vernon walk-up are always so wonderfully fresh and healthful.

* Perhaps the biggest news in frugal dining was this year's closing of Dizzy Issie's and its reopening, a few months later, as The Dizz (300 W. 30th St., 443-869-5864). Here's one place that's all grace notes, all the time: a lively (and, yes, loud) neighborhood bar up front; an ever-changing menu of familiar home-cooked meals; a cozier-than-ever dining room; a hustling and accommodating staff; and satisfaction on the plate. (All right, I wish they'd put more ice in the cocktails.) I used to think that Dizzy Issie's was slightly overrated, or at least that its admirers were a bit sentimental about it. Now, I'm a convert, and whatever it is The Dizz does to keep its customers happy, bottle it.

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