Julianna's serves up standards

Menu is average, but enthusiastic staff, welcoming vibe draw customers

March 05, 2009|By Richard Gorelick | Richard Gorelick,Special to The Baltimore Sun

The Southwest Baltimore neighborhoods of Violetville and Morrell Park seldom come up in conversations about the city's great dining experiences. But there are a handful of reliable restaurants there with local followings. Julianna's Bar and Grill is in the vicinity, but it doesn't feel attached to any neighborhood in particular.

Julianna's is a free-standing building, just off Interstate 95 and adjacent to a hotel property. This building has the look of one of those "Margaritaville" restaurants you might find in Ocean City. The tropical theme is continued inside, at least on the large bar side, but it comes to a screeching halt in the dining room, which has the stiff and funereal look of a faded hotel restaurant.

I think Julianna's would be a great place to go after work, or to meet up with a large group of friends, maybe for happy-hour specials - $5 mussels, quesadillas and wings, $7 cheese pizza - or for live music events or Thursday night karaoke. Julianna's is the kind of place you can spread out in and have some fun. I liked Julianna's a whole lot better when I called there a few days after my meal with a few questions. Michael Maynard identified himself as the manager. He has a great attitude. He told me that all kinds of people of all ages come to Julianna's for good times. Check out the photos on the Web site; everybody's got big smiles.

I just don't think I like Julianna's much for dinner, at least not in the dining room, with its heavy furniture - stuffed chairs on little brass casters and inky-swirled carpeting. Somehow, this makes the menu selections sound heavy, and they're heavy to begin with, especially the featured items: old and rich standards like chicken and shrimp dishes in alfredo, Diablo and Marsala sauces. There's nothing wrong with food like this, except I can't help think when I see it that the restaurant is catering to a conservative clientele that doesn't want too many surprises and doesn't care much about fresh ingredients. There are also burgers and other sandwiches, pizzas and, interestingly, a scattering of Greek items: pastitsio, spanakopita, a selection of gyros, baklava and rice pudding for dessert, and seafood Santorini, a seafood-over-linguine dish that uses cherry tomatoes, capers and feta cheese.

We experimented with the Greek food because it sounded the most interesting. Maybe there was a great Greek restaurant hiding here. But the large spanakopita, or spinach pie, tasted slightly sour inside, maybe a little stale, as though it had been waiting a long time for someone to order it. The pastitsio, the Greek version of lasagna, really needed a little more ground beef, and a gooier and more savory binding.

A shrimp salad gyro was satisfying, though, with a good homemade taste. I'd order it again. Julianna's fish and chips is pretty standard stuff, though it is nice to have a choice of haddock, tilapia or cod. It comes with fries and a little plastic cup of extremely mushy cole slaw.

Maybe we just ordered the wrong things. If I went back to Julianna's, I'd probably sit in the bar, which is much more lively, and have a gyro sandwich or a burger. I remember how nice the servers were that we met. I might not have loved the food (although it's the menu I really didn't like), but I'm glad to know the place is doing well, that it has a crowd, even if I'm not part of it. Good management and an enthusiastic staff are big reasons why customers keep coming back, and it's why Julianna's might stay around longer than some other place with really good coleslaw.

julianna's bar and grill

Where: 1401 Bloomfield Ave., Halethorpe

Call: 410-525-2225

Open: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Credit cards: AMEX, MasterCard, Visa

Food: ** (2 stars)

Service: ** (2 stars)

Ambience: ** (2 stars)

Appetizers: $5.99-$16.95

Entrees: $10.99-$20

on the menu

* Shrimp salad gyro: $9.95

* Spanakopita: $6.95

* The Julianna burger: $10.99

* Pastitsio: $13.99

* Fish and chips: $14.99

* Chicken Marsala: $14.99

* Shrimp scampi: $18.99

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