The Valley Inn, a landmark property on Falls Road near the city-county border, is back in business.
Now operated by Ted Bauer, owner of the of the popular Oregon Grille in Hunt Valley, the Valley Inn has been revealing itself, quietly, in stages. First came a clubby bar, which opened in late January with an introductory menu of sandwiches and bar snacks. In late February, a traditional, wood-paneled dining room began serving a full dinner menu.
Bauer acquired the Valley Inn in 2011 from John "Bud" Hatfield Jr., whose family had operated it for nearly 90 years. But the roadside property's origins date back much further. It has operated as a public inn, tavern or restaurant almost continuously since 1832.
In its waning Hatfield days, the old Valley Inn had acquired a reputation as a redoubt for very traditional Maryland cuisine — stewed tomatoes, creamed chicken on toast and, for dessert, Apple Brown Betty.
I never went, but I'd heard stories, and I am told by my colleague, Fred Rasmussen, that the Valley Inn, in those days, was a ramshackle, tumble-down affair that regulars found comforting but newcomers found either amusingly quaint or just plain alarming.
With Bauer at its helm, the Valley Inn is now a quaint-free zone. The bar and the dining room, which has been renamed the Jockey Room, now have a solid, shipshape look about them that speak clearly about Bauer's commitment to creating and maintaining a comfortable, upscale atmosphere at his version of the Valley Inn.
The menu is an eclectic mix of standard American tavern food — for appetizers, there are things like Thai-glazed calamari, firecracker shrimp and braised Asiago meatballs; the entree selection has familiar fare like roasted free-range chicken, grilled steaks and grilled fish. The most unusual menu item is poached lobster, and the few concessions to anything like Maryland cuisine are a grilled rockfish and crab cake platter. There is a section of light fare, too, with burgers, wraps and sandwiches.
This all seems smart to me. Why offer things nobody wants? And the Valley Inn crowd seems to want straightforward food.
Among appetizers, the best was the elegantly served chargrilled oysters, which had been coated gently with herbed butter and Parmesan cheese. Both the firecracker shrimp and Old Bay chicken "drummies" had been fried a little too long.
Entrees were better overall. That grilled rockfish was in fact very good. Served over a mildly seasoned crab risotto with asparagus and beurre blanc, the fish was flaky and moist with just a touch of wild flavor. The Valley Inn hamburger is appealingly fuss-free, seasoned well and served on a toasted brioche roll.
At our visit, the restaurant was running a $40 surf-and-turf special, with a large and well-marbled T-bone steak and a small but pleasantly lumpy and well-seasoned crab cake. A $19 chopped seafood salad with shrimp, lump crab, bacon and avocado, made for a decent midweek entree, although a finer chopping would have produced better flavor in each bite.
We chose to add some ahi tuna for an extra $13 but probably wouldn't do that again. Prices can be hard to figure. For the rockfish, $24 seemed fair. But $14 seemed too high for the Asiago meatball appetizer, which was basically just one good-tasting meatball in a cabernet sauce with shaved Parmesan. At dinner, a cup of coffee is $1.80, but a club soda at the bar is $2.50.
The meal's absolute highlight was dessert. The Valley Inn is serving Graeter's ice cream, the pride of Cincinnati. A scoop of their black-raspberry chocolate ice cream was insanely satisfying
The Valley Inn has done virtually no publicity, but its parking lot was full on a rainy weeknight, and there was a wait for tables in both the Jockey Room and at the bar, which has seating in wooden booths and high tables.
I like the Jockey Room, which is quiet and cozy, with a wealth of memorabilia and decor devoted to Maryland horse racing. On an early weeknight, our fellow diners looked comfortable and satisfied, too. They, like we, were being served unobtrusively and being well looked after.
The bar I can take or leave. It has been colonized by an affluent-appearing crowd that clearly enjoys being in each others' company, so much so that a newcomer can feel like an intruder. But I'll live.
I figure on any given night, there are hundreds of bars in and around Baltimore filled with regular customers who have found a place where they feel at home. I wouldn't begrudge anyone that pleasure.
The Valley Inn
Rating: 2.5 stars
Where: 2360 W. Joppa Road, Lutherville
Contact: 410-828-0002, thevalleyinn.us
Open: Sunday through Tuesday 11:30 a.m to 10:00 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers: $8-$21; Entrees: $14-$38
Food: American cuisine
Service: Quick and helpful
Parking/accessibility: Ample lot parking on property
Children: There is no children's menu.
Special diets: The staff will make accommodations when possible.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine in the main dining room. There are five televisions in the bar, which typically have their volume turned off
[Star key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]