16 Annapolis Eats

Our first Annapolis restaurant guide gives the highs (and some lows) of what the historic city has on its plate.
Edited by Suzanne Loudermilk. By John Farlow, Anne Haddad, Joan Jacobson, Suzanne Loudermilk, Mary Maushard, Linda Perlstein, and Bianca Sienra - June 2008

16 Annapolis Eats

Our first Annapolis restaurant guide gives the highs (and some lows) of what the historic city has on its plate.
Edited by Suzanne Loudermilk. By John Farlow, Anne Haddad, Joan Jacobson, Suzanne Loudermilk, Mary Maushard, Linda Perlstein, and Bianca Sienra - June 2008

Summer is in the air, and Annapolis, our state capital, beckons with its adorable shops, fancy sailboats at the newly refurbished City Dock, and grand historic homes and buildings. There’s lots to see and do, but sometime during your visit, you’ll need to rest your weary feet and get a bite to eat. With this in mind, we thought it was time to find out exactly what is available for hungry visitors in the historic district and nearby Eastport. So our insatiable reviewers set out on a culinary expedition, sampling much of the city’s fare. After ingesting mounds of crab cakes, juicy steaks, and fat sushi rolls, we think you’ll find that our first Annapolis restaurant guide gives you a comprehensive overview of the city’s culinary offerings and an assortment of eating places to satisfy your appetite whether you’re taking in the sites by foot, Segway, or water taxi.

1. Café Normandie
This cute and cozy Main Street mainstay has been around forever and is wildly popular with locals, maybe because it offers a number of opportunities for decent dining (along with huge portions) at bargain prices. Normandie offers French country cuisine, in keeping with its rather cramped, rustic interior of exposed wood beams and its humongous fireplace smack in the middle of the dining room. Choose from the wide selection of crêpes (a buckwheat crêpe stuffed with ratatouille is a favorite) and omelets to accompany a simple salad or charcuterie platter and a glass of wine—a perfect way to dine out without breaking the bank. Best bets for entrées are, unsurprisingly, Normandy-inspired dishes like breast of chicken with apples, veal Normandie with creamy mushroom sauce, or most of the seafood dishes. When the kitchen backs up—as it frequently does—you may find yourself getting antsy for the next course. But the wine always seems to arrive on time, and if you catch the early bird specials or the monthly Tuesday-night wine dinner (six courses accompanied by appropriate wines for $79), you won’t really mind the wait—especially if you’re waiting for the yummy homemade chocolate éclairs or crêpes Normandie (ice cream, hot apples, and caramel sauce) for dessert. 185 Main St., 410-263-3382. Moderate.

2. Carrol’s Creek Waterfront Restaurant
The best seat in the house is probably outside—on the deck on a summer afternoon, where you can sip a brew, enjoy a meal, and watch the boat traffic with downtown Annapolis in the background. But it’s pleasant inside Carrol’s Creek, too. This contemporary restaurant has plenty going for it, including its location just over the Eastport bridge. The restaurant’s design makes the most of that location. With plenty of windows facing Spa (originally Carrol’s) Creek and tables on different levels and at different angles, almost everyone has a water view. And as night falls, the view includes the majesty of the U.S. Naval Academy chapel dome and lights from the constant cars on the bridge. Inside, the atmosphere is bustling, but not hurried. The menu is large with traditional seafood and steak, alongside soups, salads, and other light fare. Carrol’s Creek offers an interesting menu option: For $14 more than the price of an entrée, you can also get cream of crab soup, a house salad, and a choice of dessert. It’s a fair value for the hungry. The house salad is quite interesting, and good—with blue cheese, walnuts, and dried cranberries in mixed greens with a vinaigrette dressing. The filet mignon is excellent, and the rockfish topped with spinach and crab over risotto tastes even better than it sounds. Locals and tourists seem to intermingle in this casual, family-friendly atmosphere. 410 Severn Ave., Eastport, 410-263-8102. Moderate.

3. The Chart House
Mostly Seafood
Talk about a room with a view. This waterside restaurant on Spa Creek captures a postcard-picture look at historic Annapolis from its Eastport vantage point. Yes, it’s a chain, but it’s also a tourist magnet with its great location. We’ve found that it’s worth a stop if you focus on appetizers, fresh fish, and certain seafood dishes. For Marylanders, the crab entrées, especially the crab cakes, may not measure up to our inbred expectations. But the blue crab dip with crostini is an excellent nosh to bolster tired spirits after walking around our state capital. Fried calamari dunked in a Thai chili citrus dipping sauce is another delicious way to revive your energy. In the open, comfortable dining room, you can count on the kitchen to deliver wonderfully prepared fresh fish, like a dynamite halibut lathered in a crab-crusted, chive oil coating. You also won’t go wrong with baked shrimp topped with crab. There’s a salad bar, but the chopped spinach salad on the menu is a beautiful mix of shredded greens, mushrooms, and radishes with hot bacon dressing. We’d skip the restaurant’s signature dessert—a hot chocolate lava cake. For all its promise of grandeur with Godiva chocolate liqueur, a molten center, and chopped Heath Bar crunch, it was more like a crusty brownie with chocolate sauce. We were happy to head back into town for ice cream from one of the local shops. 300 Second St., Eastport, 410-268-7166. Expensive.

4. Galway Bay
After a relaxed stroll around the City Dock, consider hoofing up toward State Circle and popping into Galway Bay; the appetite you build up will be more than satisfied. This replica of a typical Connaught pub boasts a fine bar and plenty of booths in which to relax with a pint and friends. But it also contains a spacious, casual dining room that can accommodate large parties and families. The food at Galway Bay is centered on pub fare with mass appeal. The menu abounds with classics like shepherd’s pie and fish and chips, but also more ambitious items like fresh fish and grilled lamb chops. And there are many dishes that are rendered Irish more by the addition of a Celtic adjective than by the preparation, such as Kinsale seafood salad or Celtic fried mushrooms. But it’s all good in the end, and so much the better with what we can honestly say is a perfectly pulled pint. 63 Maryland Ave., 410-263-8333. Moderate.

5. Harry Browne’s
Harry Browne’s offers a window on Annapolis—literally for those lucky enough to be seated at one of the few front tables—and figuratively for those within. This is an Annapolis staple, a long-time gathering spot for legislators, lobbyists, lawyers, and reporters. But on a cool weekend, the crowd is early baby-boomer couples and foursomes. Those who do get a window table have the State House dome in clear view and a front row seat on the passing State Circle parade of tourists and teens. Other diners enjoy a casually sophisticated room with dark wood, leaded glass, and striking chandeliers. The dimly lit dining room has a classic bar, tucked into this room long before the restaurant was Harry Browne’s. Wherever you sit, you are treated to excellent food imbued with unusual flavors that are beautifully presented. Amid many great tastes, the rack of lamb stands out for its richness, its size, and its melt-in-your-mouth tenderness, and for the accompanying peas, carrots, and couscous under a light curry sauce. The salmon, one of the specials, has a gentle sweetness that makes it special with artichoke hearts and grape tomatoes in a light sauce. The ice cream at Harry Browne’s is notable, too—it’s homemade. Lavender ice cream tops a rich pear crisp. And there isn’t anything plain about the vanilla that goes with the light, though raisin-laden, bread pudding. The friendly, unhurried yet professional service, stunning atmosphere, and culinary intrigue make Harry Browne’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening worth lingering over. 66 State Circle, 410-263-4332. Expensive.

6. Joss Café and Sushi Bar
“This is the best food I’ve had in ages,” a happy diner, two tables down, remarks dreamily. Hey, it’s hard not to eavesdrop at Joss Café and Sushi Bar, where the tables are packed cheek-by-jowl into a warren of well-used dining rooms, and the clients—lots of them—are usually rhapsodizing about the food. They couldn’t care less about the modest surroundings or the crowds; they’re here for the sushi. And what sushi it is: fat, silky toro; creamy, unctuous uni; crisp-crunchy baby octopus. Pretty much everything you order here, whether it’s one of the sparkling fresh seaweed salads or a selection from the daunting array of rolls, is guaranteed to be perfectly prepared. The menu is staggering, so we usually zoom in on a few favorites. We love the maguro poke, chopped raw tuna marinated in soy and sesame oil, and blended with pine nuts, sesame seeds, Japanese pepper, and scallions. The shiitake tempura is an exemplar of umami—that elusive, mysterious fifth taste best described as heavenly-funky. Bite into a cloud of batter to the earthy mushroom beneath, and you’ll find heaven indeed. And if you’re an adventurous diner, nothing could be better than the pork shumai. These light, little dumpling bombs, imbued with fiery wasabi, provide an instant, overwhelming blast of intense heat, which miraculously fades in seconds. Wow. Everything is pretty wow here, including the service, faster than a speeding bullet train. But don’t be intimidated by the brusquely efficient service. When you’re having some of the best food you’ve had in ages, you really need to savor every bite. 195 Main St., 410-263-4688. Moderate.

7. Lemongrass
An easygoing, Far-East atmosphere and food that practically pops with flavor are the two characteristics that define Lemongrass. Service is friendly and welcoming, and one is immediately at ease in a dining room that is bright and cheery without being kitsch or formal. The menu overflows with Thai-inspired cooking, and everything is scrumptious. This is not a place for the meek of palate, however; spicy means spicy on this menu, and the ingredients are so fresh that acids tingle while sweet and salty dance jubilantly across one’s tongue. A great example is the pa ram long song, a bewitching amalgam of chicken breast and light yellow curry that sings with a little sweetness, zings with citrus, and stings, but just ever so little, with spice. Another home run is the spicy eggplant. A generous plateful of Asian eggplant that has been lightly fried and doused in garlic sauce, then sprinkled with pepper and basil, this plate satisfies a craving for the savoriness of fried food without paying the price in heavy fats, fatty fillings, or soggy leftovers for next day’s lunch. Not much is on offer for dessert, but we will say the mango sticky rice at Lemongrass is the best we’ve tasted in Maryland. 167 West St., 410-280-0086. Moderate.

8. Lewnes’ Steakhouse
The Lewnes family has been at this Eastport corner since 1921, the last 14 years as a steakhouse. Recently expanded—an old family home became another dining room—Lewnes’ seems to hold its own against the upscale chain steakhouse nearby. The new space is more open than the original dining room. Tables are well-spaced, windows look into the wine room, and vintage photos give this somewhat clubby space a homey feel (someone’s mother or aunt in younger days, a child stuffed into a snowsuit beside a mound of snow). The windows into the wine room afford a view of hundreds of bottles. Dabbling on this wine list is not for the faint-hearted; it is huge, sophisticated, and high-end, though there are half bottles and wines by the glass plus waiters who gladly make recommendations. The steaks are a la carte; vegetables and salads, family style, with half orders available. We recommend the small filet mignon—the flavor is huge—although the New York strip is not as tender or as flavorful. Although beef is the star, the menu includes almost as many seafood items. Service is knowledgeable and efficient, though at times, food arrives too quickly. We leave with an invitation to return from a server, a nice touch and one more reason Lewnes’ remains an Annapolis tradition. 401 Fourth St., Eastport, 410-263-1617. Expensive.

9. Luna Blu
The only reason not to order the $35 dinner special Luna Blu offers—appetizer, salad, entrée, and dessert from the regular menu—would be that you weren’t very hungry. But that could change once you got started, because the food just keeps getting better with each course in this comfortable and welcoming Italian restaurant. Chef/owner Ivano Scotto puts the “Napoli” in Annapolis, and vice versa, literally wrapping the cuisine of his native Italian Campania region around Maryland classics, and garnishing them with whimsy: The crab medusa is a jumbo lump crab cake nestled in a tangle of angel-hair pasta and flash-fried into a crunchy cage. Southern Italy melts atop Southern Maryland in the fried green tomatoes topped with fresh mozzarella, but Luna Blu also offers the straight-up Caprese original with really ripe tomatoes. The entrée choices are surprising for this relatively small restaurant—with a risotto of the day, as well as pastas, sautéed chicken breast or veal. Seafood is plentiful: A grilled salmon with spinach entrée includes a generous dividend of scallops and lump crab scattered on top, all of it enveloped in a richly flavorful cream sauce. That same sauce binds spaghetti and prosciutto in the carbonara, a decadent dish that probably should be enjoyed in moderation—if you can exercise restraint. But pacing yourself will pay off when it’s time for dessert, which is so good that it is worth coming to Luna Blu just for that. Go for the sophisticated zabaglione or strawberry semifreddo. Lunch offerings include a more modest pizza-and-sandwich menu. A bonus at this unpretentious place—children are welcome, and servers helpfully suggest a smaller $10 pasta portion for a child. It will provide enough for his dad’s lunch the next day. 36 West St., Annapolis, 410-267-9950. Moderate.

10. OB’s Prime
The “OB” in OB’s Prime stands for O’Briens, the tavern downstairs whose music, depending on where you are sitting, tends to pulse up through the dining room chairs and compete with the piped in jazz standards. The “Prime” is for the elegant steakhouse this restaurant aspires to be. But there are a few faults it must overcome before it gets there: Filet mignons cut too thin and strangely sauced (our steak au poivre resonates more of nutmeg than of the pepper it’s named for, and steak Diane is overwhelmed with mustard); waitresses who emerge from smoking breaks and forget to ask if you want coffee with dessert. But a decent night can be crafted if you order properly, and adjust expectations. Help yourself to the sourbread rolls, served warm. Clams casino and oysters Rockefeller are good choices, but the crab dip is better, creamy and delicious. The prime rib is generous and tasty, the mashed potatoes, addictive. The dense banana cake with chocolate chips won’t win any prizes, but it won’t get left on your plate, either. 111 Main St., 410-269-1210. Moderate.

11. O’Learys Seafood
Insofar as “Annapolis seafood restaurant” usually signifies crab dip, crab soup, and, well, crabs, O’Learys breaks the mold. In a wood-beamed dining room that manages to exude buzz and calm at the same time, fish gets treatment that is refined but never fussy. “Close your eyes and point,” a waiter says when asked which appetizers are excellent, and so far he hasn’t been proven wrong. It’s hard to imagine doing better than two perfectly cooked, moist scallops bundled into phyllo and accented by pesto. There’s nothing innovative about the three preparations in the tuna trio—one seared piece, one pile of tartare tossed with soy, and one generous slab of sashimi—but the fish, impeccably fresh, needs no fireworks. (The silver chopsticks on the side: a lovely touch.) For entrées, it’s all about the extra touches. A crispy grouper is elevated by a beautifully spiced batter, but it’s the accompanying succotash that sets O’Learys apart: The corn is gently charred, the onions caramelized, and the bacon generous. The crab cakes are good in a city where they must be; one bite through to the bottom reveals they have been delightfully crisped, and you wonder why everybody doesn’t do that. Desserts deliver, too, especially a multi-layered coconut cake with transcendent frosting. Two thoughts linger after you’re out the door: Why didn’t we order two slices, and when can we make reservations again? 310 Third St., Eastport, 410-263-0884. Expensive.

12. Osteria 177
This luxurious Italian-Mediterranean restaurant is the latest to inhabit a prime location on Main and Conduit streets in the heart of Annapolis, a few blocks from the State House. Opened in November 2006, its décor is reminiscent of a regal old New York restaurant with high ceilings and ample booths. Chandeliers glitter, original paintings hang from the walls, and angular, high-backed white chairs give the place a contemporary look. While it’s clear that owners Arturo Ottaviano (manager) and Maurizio Cotti (chef) put a lot of thought into this décor, it’s even more apparent that tremendous effort goes into everything that comes out of the kitchen. From the cream of asparagus soup with a rich stock and a surprise of crab meat, to a salad of shaved parmesan and bresaola (cured beef) with arugula, to the tender lobster tail tossed with fettuccini, each dish is prepared with great skill and care. A duck breast in pear reduction and a veal chop stuffed with fontinella and prosciutto could not be more succulent. A buttery branzino, a Mediterranean sea bass, is cooked perfectly and expertly filleted at the table. Dinner includes fine Italian wines by the glass and continual refills of sparkling mineral water. A splendid meal with fine service ends with tiramisu, hiding delightful cherries in the bottom, and a lovely dark and white chocolate mousse.
177 Main St., 410-267-7700. Expensive.

13. Paul’s Homewood Cafe
Paul’s Homewood Café is one Annapolis restaurant where you don’t go for the view. Unless, that is, you like to watch traffic whiz by on busy West Street and take in the gas station, transmission repair place, and bail bondsman’s office across the street. But do come for the food. Paul’s has been at this spot for 48 years, most of that time as a diner. After a recent renovation and expansion, however, Paul’s is a white-tablecloth restaurant at dinnertime and offers exquisite food, much of it Greek. While the décor is sleek and new, the menu leans to traditional dishes, such as lamb shish kebab, crab cakes, fish specials, pastas, a huge list of Greek appetizers and, of course, Greek salad. All are very good, as is the service. The manageable wine list features the products of what it describes as small and independent vintners. The bottles in racks and on shelves contribute to the attractive surroundings. There is a lot of bustle—the kitchen opens onto one dining room, which also includes the bar—a high table turnover, and, consequently, a parade of food being hurried to diners. On a recent weeknight, Paul’s is quite busy, and we can see why. We are told there are a lot of regulars. But diners do not seem rushed. It’s a comfortable place to pause over a drink—Paul’s now has a full liquor license—to savor your meal, and to enjoy your coffee after some wonderful desserts. 919 West St., 410-267-7891. Moderate.

14. Reynolds Tavern
The elegant dining rooms in one of the town’s oldest buildings remind you why you’re in the Colonial capital—to get a taste of its charms. It’s all about capturing the grandeur of the past in an authentic setting. And what better way to savor the experience than with an English tea. There are several choices, including afternoon tea (an assortment of sweet and savory nibbles), champagne tea (a glass of bubbly and chocolate-covered strawberries with the afternoon tea), and high tea (choice of soup, salad, or quiche with tea). There’s also a wide selection of tea choices, but the most fun to watch is the blooming tea, a tea pod that opens into a flower in a clear glass pot of steaming water as it brews. It’s quite a presentation—and quite delicious. The treats with the tea are hit and miss—lemon squares, mushroom tarts, macaroons, and cucumber sandwiches are dainty and delicious; but the quiche Lorraine was too soggy and the scones too dry on one visit. The tavern also has lunch (such as turkey Reuben and Angus burger) and dinner (including rack of lamb and chicken Chesapeake) if you want to go a more traditional route. 7 Church Circle, 410-295-9555. Moderate.

15. Treaty of Paris Restaurant
The Treaty of Paris Restaurant at the Maryland Inn is surely a contender for the capital’s most romantic dining room with its fireplaces, toile drapes, crisp white linens, and subtle lighting reminiscent of the days when America’s forefathers supped there. On a weekend evening not in high tourist season, the Treaty of Paris was sadly underutilized. Nothing in our experience there warranted a lack of diners. In addition to beautiful surroundings, the Treaty of Paris offers friendly and attentive service, and a traditional menu excellently prepared and reasonably priced. The popovers that spill from the breadbasket are a stand out, crusty on the outside, warm and soft inside. Bread lovers would need go no further. But there is plenty more to please. The menu is filled with Maryland favorites—crab cakes, rockfish, salmon, shrimp, and several steaks. The two crab cakes are light and flavorful, broiled as ordered without being dry. The rockfish topped with lump crab in a light white sauce is a thoroughly satisfying combination. The only complaint is that the crab cakes and French onion soup are not warm enough. Because there is no rush, our meal is leisurely, capped by desserts made in house: crème brûlée and a green apple dumpling with ice cream. Both delicious. Tradition has its virtues, and Treaty of Paris seems to be mining the feel and flavor of another day for the benefit of the here and now. More people should partake. Maryland Inn, 16 Church Circle, 410-216-6340. Expensive.

16. Tsunami
Asian Fusion
The best part about this hip Annapolis restaurant, where young professionals hang out at the dimly lit bar, is how it lives up to its concept of Asian fusion cuisine—that “East meets West” marriage of unlikely ingredients, flavors, and cooking styles. In what otherwise is a slightly cramped, noisy restaurant, where the large light globes are turned down so low it’s hard to read the menu, the food and service deserve their own spotlight. The servers—some sporting tasteful tattoos—are attentive and prompt with each course. A generous appetizer of popcorn-sized fried shrimp is transformed in an addictive Japanese tempura batter, while Asian dumpling wrappers are sculpted like queens on a chess board, stuffed with goat cheese and spinach. Appetizers come with an unannounced bonus of crisp salads of greens and curlicues of raw beets and carrots in lime dressing. A Maryland crab cake cross-dresses in a refreshing sauce of mango and citrus-wasabi aioli, while roasted monkfish (sadly overcooked) sits on a thin, Swedish-style pancake of sweet potatoes with apple-wood bacon and a coulis of passion fruit, lime, and yuzu. Generous desserts include bananas fried in thin, crispy lumpia wrappers (think egg roll), served with ice cream infused with a subtle ginger flavor. A delicious litchi sorbet disappears too fast as it melts into a fruity lime soup. You can’t get more exotic than that, just two blocks from the Maryland State House. 51 West St., 410-990-9868. Expensive.

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