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Free Range

Old School Rules

Hazelwood Inn puts the charm in Charm City

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden

Hazelwood Inn

4937 Hazelwood Ave., (410) 866-3116,

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Restaurants like the Hazelwood Inn can feel like relics of a bygone era in Baltimore dining. The huge parking lot, bounded on one end by a row of transmission towers, regularly hosts classic car shows. A packaged goods store acts as the mortar that connects the dining and banquet rooms on one end of the sprawling brick building, with the lounge on the other end, where men (and women) can and do make a dent in their Friday paycheck, according to the restaurant’s formidable hostess. Inside, the Inn’s dining room toes the line of what once might have been formal, with landscape murals, busily patterned carpet, and sturdy wooden booths, but three televisions and a casually dressed crowd make it anything but. Maker’s Mark manhattans cost $5. Yuengling drafts are $3. You’re asked which of a half-dozen dressings you want on the green salad that accompanies your entree. Pickled beets are one of the six choices of sides. You can order nachos or oysters Rockefeller as an appetizer. And yes, the staff will call you “hon,” as in, “Can I take a couple of your menus, hon? We’ve run out and another table needs them.”

As can often happen with kitchens that offer multipage menus that range from liver and onions to eggplant parmigiana to a mushroom burger to stuffed shrimp, not everything is top-notch. There’s also a very heavy salt presence—something I’m not particularly sensitive to but couldn’t help but be in this case. That said, despite the inclusion of said nachos and wings, the Hazelwood Inn’s menu hews pretty close to old-fashioned continental and Italian, with a smattering of Greek specialties, like a chicken souvlaki-on-pita special, a nod to the current owner’s heritage.

The restaurant does a serviceable clams casino ($9.49), each of six cheese- and pepper-smothered bivalves topped with a square of bacon, and a Maryland crab soup that’s both spicy and sweet, and full of lima beans, corn, and crab ($3.50 cup/$1.50 additional to any entree). The marinara sauce for pastas—including a shellfish-laden pescatore over your choice of pasta that boasts plump mussels, slightly overcooked scallops, shrimp, and crab ($20.99)—also suffers from too much sweetness and an overreliance on oregano.

Seafood dishes, though simpler, fare better. Two jumbo-sized soft-shell crabs ($19.95 platter, a special) are deep-fried in a light, almost tempura-like batter, and emerge crisp, with their inherent sweetness intact. The fried seafood platter ($24.99), one of several different seafood combos, includes generously sized shrimp and oysters with not-too-much crumb, which might make them indistinguishable; a flounder fillet that could be a meal on its own; and the most monstrously sized crab cake I’ve ever seen. Could it be close to a half pound? I’d have to weigh it to be sure. The Hazelwood has made its reputation on this cake, and while it has more filler than I would like, it is well-seasoned. The crab imperial that tops a marinated a la Grecque chicken breast in the Inn’s rendition of chicken Chesapeake ($19.99) suffers the same fate, but I like the moistness and the added citrus oomph that marinating gave the chicken breast (and in the end, I’m glad it came broiled rather than fried, as was my choice). The dish is still way too salty, but take care of that and you have a fine plate.

Despite (or perhaps because of) all its quirks, the Hazelwood Inn has its charms. Regulars are conspicuously noted here, as are first-timers (“Your first time? Dessert on the house. Do you want rice pudding or cheesecake-stuffed baklava?” Rice pudding and happy for it.) And the blonde hostess, who masterfully settled a complaint about the TV switch from Orioles to Ravens back to Orioles with one steely glare, positively melted when a favorite customer entered the dining room, enveloping him and his family in bear hugs with genuine warmth.

This is what I love about old-school Baltimore restaurants. Not necessarily the food—which has its ups and downs these days—but the spirit of community and the sense that everyone has a place to gather over a meal, whether it’s in Harbor East or Rosedale. It’s been my sincere pleasure to enter into those communities and share them with you while reviewing restaurants for City Paper for the past four years. This review marks my last Free Range column, though certainly not my last meal. Many thanks to CP staff past and present, including photographer extraordinaire Sam Holden, for making my words look good. And thank you, City Paper readers, for paying attention, sharing opinions, and even disagreeing. Cheers.

Hazelwood Inn is open seven days for lunch and dinner.

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