What Makes Pappas Popular?

Restaurant Review

Parkville Fixture Features Food That Satisfies Yen For An Old Baltimore Meal

July 12, 2009|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

Here I am having dinner at Pappas Restaurant on a weeknight in summer, supposedly a dead time for restaurants, and every table is filled. This Parkville institution must be doing something right, but I'm not sure what it is. Sometimes the reasons for a restaurant's success are obvious. Not this time.

True, the staff couldn't be nicer, harder-working or more professional. But that doesn't make up for the fact that there were too few of them. Even with reservations, we had a long wait before a busboy was available to clear and set a table for us. We waited even longer for the waitress to get free to take our order.

My friend's dinner special was supposed to come with soup and a drink, but we didn't realize it until afterward, and the waitress didn't bring either. My husband asked for a water refill three times but never got it. Not a good sign. I finally went and found our hostess to tell her we were ready to pay the check.

Pappas' popularity can't be due to the setting. The restaurant is comfortable, not overly air-conditioned and not too noisy even with a crowd; but with its dropped ceiling, lack of windows and overall brownish decor that harks back to the '50s, I wouldn't call the main dining room a real draw. (There is a newer, more light-filled addition in back. No tables were available.)

Basically Pappas is the kind of Old Baltimore restaurant - it's been owned and operated by the same folks since 1972 - that I'm very fond of. You have to be in the mood for a certain type of food, and Pappas has it. Crab imperial is on offer as well as a crab cake, and it's made with jumbo lump crab meat. You can count on a seafood platter (broiled or fried) and stuffed shrimp.

The "Light Platters" section on the menu means not low-cal but inexpensive, as in hot roast turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy for $9.95. There are Italian specialties. I'm sure you know the kind of restaurant I mean.

It's a relief not to see one trendy ingredient or weird preparation anywhere.

Prices are more than reasonable.

Pretty much every bottle on the wine list will be something you've heard of like a Blue Nun Reisling, and most of it is priced under $25, with wines by the glass under $5. A martini is $3.95.

There's more. When you sit down, your table is brought a platter of sliced cucumbers and celery, chilled and dressed with vinegar and a little sugar. Crackers, breadsticks and butter follow soon after.

If the food is done well, you will leave this kind of restaurant happy, even if the meal isn't exciting. Sometimes exciting is overrated.

But there's no room for error. If the spanakopita on the Greek appetizer platter isn't baked long enough and the tomatoes are wintry, you'll feel grumpy - even though the kitchen is more than generous with the feta and black olives that accompany them.

You have to be OK with the fact that the Maryland crab soup tastes like good vegetable soup.

When the cream for the coffee turns out to be nondairy creamer, you'll wish a cup of coffee cost more and you got the real stuff to whiten it with.

The vaunted crab cakes (Pappas' specialty) were full of beautiful lumps but didn't have much seasoning, or flavor for that matter. The whole point of a crab cake is to improve on the crab itself. Otherwise, why not just eat the crab meat?

The crab imperial, although quite mayonnaise-y, was actually more satisfying, especially piled on top of big shrimp. It was also good on the stuffed mushroom caps, although the mushrooms themselves had seen better days.

Crab is clearly king here. The only fish on the regular menu is orange roughy, though salmon and grouper did show up on the nightly specials menu. The grouper was firm and fresh, and not overcooked, and came with a couple of mussels in their shells, some shrimp and a scallop or two. But in spite of the exotic name, grouper Mariquiera, the preparation was pretty bland, a sauce of mostly chopped tomato. You have to give Pappas credit for a generous amount of seafood, though.

Lots of shrimp came with the garlic shrimp as well, just not much garlic. (I have to admit that was fine with me, but with a name like "garlic shrimp," you may be expecting, you know, garlic.)

Strangely, because Pappas is known for its seafood, the best dinner we had was a steak special, a decently sized, char-broiled New York strip for $15.95. The problem was the vegetables that came with it. One was baby-cut carrots in a too-sweet sauce. The other was supposedly twice-baked potatoes, heavy on the sour cream. But they weren't baked in their skin - just a little aluminum foil dish.

Desserts aren't made in-house except for the rice pudding, which could have used a lot less whipped topping and some raisins. The chocolate cake was decent enough, but the coconut cream pie had been around too long.

In spite of the less-than-positive things I've said about Pappas, I can see its appeal. It has an authentic feel that newer places often lack. It's relaxing. It's not expensive. Regulars will know the best things on the menu to order and will be pampered by the staff. Newer restaurants that maybe have more pizazz could take some lessons from it.

Pappas Restaurant

Address: 1725 Taylor Ave., Parkville

Open: Daily for lunch and dinner.

Contact: 410-661-4357, PappasCrabCakes.com

Appetizers: $4.95-$25.95

Entrees: $9.95-$33.95.

Food: ** ( 2 STARS)

Service: ** ( 2 STARS)

Atmosphere: ** ( 2 STARS)

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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