The ground floor of this building, just north of McDonald's in Lauraville, could have housed any number of businesses: a bowling alley, a roller-skating rink, a giant sports bar. But The Parkside Fine Food & Spirits restaurant has moved in, and, against all odds, made the vast space cozy, with its vintage church pews—used both for seating and reconstructed as shelves for liquor behind the bar—its outdated classroom maps, its comfort-leaning menu, and Tuesday night "sammich specials," including discounts for cops and firefighters in uniform.
The 5,000-square-foot space isn't all restaurant. The back half resembles an Amish market, selling local foodstuffs, including coffee from nearby Zeke's, handmade pottery, jams and jellies, cookbooks, and other homey items. There's a bakery, and a deli counter cranks out sandwiches for the restaurant as well as boxed lunches (complete with an oversized cookie) to go.
The Parkside team, comprised of husband and wife Chris and Colleen Cashell and business partner Vickie Johnson, took over the space previously occupied by the dicey Cameo Lounge and, long ago, the Parkside Theater. Those paying attention to the restaurant evolution on this strip of Harford Road will not be surprised to learn there's a Brewer's Art connection. Chris brewed beer, Colleen was a cook, and Vickie held a number of positions at the downtown tavern that seems to be spawning a new generation of easy-going places with heartfelt menus: Annabel Lee Tavern in Highlandtown and Parkside neighbors Clementine and Hamilton Tavern. Even Jeff Smith cooked at The Brewer's Art before opening Chameleon Café seven years ago.
The Parkside has a retro feel that is in no way self-conscious; it's an honest version of the Café Hon concept. The menu has light fare and signature flatbreads (featured on Wednesday nights with $8 specials) as well as hearty main courses that embrace tradition without kitsch. Sauerbraten with potato dumplings and batter-dipped fried chicken happily share the entrée column with vegetarian paella, a thick, tomato-based vegetable stew, laced with saffron and served over rice. There's a maple-glazed salmon and a cod-cake platter, and, speaking of throwbacks, most entrées come with a seasonal, fresh vegetable of the day, which could be zucchini and mushrooms drenched in butter, or corn on the cob in summer.
Appetizers are designed for sharing. There's a trio of dips: spinach and artichoke, spicy black bean, and white bean sweetened with tarragon, served with slices of bread and crisp crackers. The Frenchman's platter includes liver pâté and a vegetable mousse, while a smoked trout platter comes with crème fraîche and wedges of toast. The daily "Bachelor" is a filling appetizer made with whatever's on hand: biscuits and gravy, an Asian pancake with hot and sour pork, tuna tartare. Thursday nights are Mama's Kitchen night, and Chef Colleen brings on the comfort food, featuring such standbys as tuna-noodle or beef-and-cheddar casserole.
Desserts range from a plate of three large cookies (perfect to save for tomorrow…and the next day) to a dense and rich heart-shaped silken chocolate tofu cake with raspberry sauce.
On Sundays, you get brunch. Cheesy omelettes, sausage and bacon, bagels, French toast, and a pleasantly crunchy, butter-fried "egg in a hole" are served between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
The Parkside takes family friendliness to elaborate heights. Not only by virtue of its $5.50 meals for anyone under 10 years of age (most are the usual suspects: a hot dog, mac 'n cheese, pizza, though the Baltimore coddie with wedge fries is a nice addition), each with a drink, a dessert, and a surprise (we're not telling). But kids who haven't yet learned restaurant manners can wiggle out of their chairs and under the table, or up and down the stairs of a wooden playhouse in an area stocked with toys and carpeted in rubber tiles. Parents can even ask to be seated within the enclosed zone.
This newbie opened within months of Clementine and Hamilton Tavern, and at first glance, the three restaurants may seem like variations on a theme—leading one to wonder if the rivalry is friendly in tough economic times. But on a recent weeknight, when Clementine was closed, its owner came in with her son, who immediately launched himself into the play area. Another Brewer's Art alumna, who owns a hair salon up the street stopped by with kids, and with all the hugs and hellos, you would have thought it was old home week on Harford. And, in many ways, it was.
The Parkside Fine Food & Spirits, 4709 Harford Rd., 410-444-6004. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tues-Thurs, 11 a.m.-midnight Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Sunday brunch. Appetizers, $6-13, flatbreads, $10-12; entrées, $12-17; desserts, $4.50.