Famliar neighborhood institution still breeds contentment

Pappas Restaurant

1725 Taylor Ave., Parkville, [410] 661-4357, pappascrabcakes.com

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In the Pappas Restaurant dining room, in the corner next to the fireplace, a man named Jack, chin bristling with silver whiskers, plunks out a tune on his portable keyboard, as he has most evenings for the last 20 or so of his 89 years. Only a few notes are discernible under the cataract of restaurant white noise—the clank of commercial china and the metal creak of tray holders unfolded like ironing boards, the dull thud of rubber-bottomed canes and conversations facilitated via hearing aids—making it impossible to identify the song. Pappas on an early Tuesday evening yields no silences for melody. But along with the flames wavering in the fireplace, the dishes of pickled cucumbers that arrive at tables gratis, and the giant crab cakes, Jack is a given, an expected part of a meal at Pappas.

Like the nearby Perring Place or Lutherville’s Peppermill, Pappas offers a particular, old-school Baltimore experience that, despite minor cosmetic updates, firmly resists embracing any food trends more current than honey-mustard dressing (and this made with brilliant yellow ballpark mustard rather than Dijon). Patrons skew local and loyal, and, judging from the amount of booster seats, crayons, and coloring books servers bring to the tables, have fostered generations of customers.

It’s a whiskey sour and dry gin martini kind of joint, where rail Manhattans cost $4.50 (!) and, if ordered on the rocks, are brought to the table disassembled, the glass, the rocks, and the cocktail in its own cruet set before you to mix as you like, a move trendier restaurants would do well to emulate. But mostly it’s a restaurant where patrons know servers’ names (and vice versa), where regulars are expected on “their” night, where you see folks you know from somewhere—the old neighborhood? a local business? a long-ago church service?—but you just can’t place, and where you order the old-fashioned local dishes you wouldn’t necessarily make at home, like crab imperial, hot roast beef, and stuffed shrimp.

I’ll come clean. I love that places like Pappas still exist, not for the décor, which is 10 steps past dowdy, but for the way it is embraced by the neighborhood and the way that eating out is so clearly a treat for many of the people who dine here. Having grown up in Baltimore, I also have a sentimental attachment for the kind of food served at Pappas, much of which is utterly respectable if not fashionable. The kitchen can sauté a soft crab (in season) so that it’s both yielding and crisp, pad an oyster without suffocating it, and turn out spaghetti and meat sauce ($5.99 for a children’s portion) that wouldn’t be out of place in Little Italy (or your own kitchen).

I like that you can still order a seafood platter, that there’s still the option of fried or broiled ($26.99 either way), and that it includes scallops, oysters, shrimp, a monstrously sized crab cake, and a remarkably fresh-tasting orange roughy fillet that makes you remember why this fish became popular years back. That said, I will risk the wrath of Pappas’ regulars and say that I prefer others’ crab cakes to Pappas’ version, not because the restaurant doesn’t use local crabmeat (that’s a discussion for another day), but because on my last few visits, the interior of the tennis-ball-sized cakes has been wet, suggesting they needed a few more minutes in the deep fryer or under the broiler. When they are cooked properly, however, it’s clear why they are some folks’ favorites, full of creamy white lumps and seasoned with a balanced hand.

Imperial crab preparations, whether stuffed into shrimp ($20.99) or piled high without accompaniment in a serving dish ($22.99), boast that same lump-to-filler ratio, which must be around 10-to-1. With its puffy, shiny, browned dome, the standalone crab imperial could double for a baked Alaska. It’s rich, as it should be, but hard to finish in one sitting. A thin rib eye ($18.99) looks modest in comparison, but surprises with full flavor. All entrées come with a choice of side dishes, including the ubiquitous but classic French fries and coleslaw, as well as applesauce (which never seems to go well with anything but pork, and there’s little of that on the menu), sliced tomatoes, or a salad (though avoid being virtuous by skipping the bleu cheese dressing and ordering the house vinaigrette, which lacks flavor), plus a few others.

Pappas also offers a slew of sandwiches; ribs; chicken prepared Chesapeake-style with imperial crab and Francaise-style, dipped in egg, pan fried, and served with lemon butter sauce; lobster tails; and a half dozen or so pasta dishes. There is house-made rice pudding ($3.50) that is suitably creamy but lacks salt, plus ice cream sundaes and cakes made elsewhere for dessert.

“I like it here because there is something for everyone,” says the young mother at our table, as we prepare to leave. “It’s a restaurant with white tablecloths where you can take kids and grandparents.” And so it is.

At the end of the evening, which is still early in the evening, the dining room remains filled. A group of women raise fishbowl-sized cocktails in a toast. Two young children at a table across the room wave to the toddler at our table. Jack snoozes quietly in the corner, his Casio silent, as he takes the 20-minute nap that will ensure he won’t fall asleep on his drive home. This is Pappas, rarely changing, unfailingly reliable, old-school and content to be that way.

Pappas Restaurant is open seven days for lunch and dinner.

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