Phillips at Harborplace: John Dorsey's review from October 1980

The Baltimore Sun

Here, as promised, is John Dorsey's Sun Magazine review of Phillips at Harborplace, dated October 26, 1980. I ended up having mixed feelings about posting it. For one, I had to type it in myself (hard to do when you keep laughing). Also, I don't want to pile on to Phillips. But mostly, because it's so well written and so insightful that it makes me feel like el supremo knuckleheado. John Dorsey died in April 2005. He was a class act.

Here's the review.

Dining with Dorsey

Hard to Explain Success of Phillips at Harbor

To the outrage of most of my friends, I was one of the Harborplace doubters. We needn't go into the matter except to say that for the moment at least I take it all back. The future of any enterprise is uncertain but Harborplace's present is triumphant vindication of those who contended it was just what the city needed to make the Inner Harbor a year-round magnet for the metropolitan area.

Among the complex's principal attractions are its restaurants, eventually there will be, I gather, about 10 in all, ranging from cafes to formal dining rooms, with many offering a variety of seating arrangements. I begin with Phillips only because it was the first to open, some two weeks in advance of the official opening of Harborplace in early July.

No visitor to Ocean City can be unfamiliar with Phillips seafood restaurants; the original one goes back more years than even I can remember, and the city now has Phillipses from 13th to 141st streets, all apparently thriving.

The Baltimore branch is not unlike the others in that it serves popular local seafood dishes at reasonable prices, and that combination adds up to huge success Three of us arrived at Phillips at 6:30 one recent Monday evening and had to wait 45 minutes for a table. When we left about 9 o'clock the line was almost as long. At the same time, the Soup Kitchen across the way was all but deserted and Jean-Claude, at the other end of the Light Street Pavilion, was having a slow night.

You can't argue with success, but I must admit that in this case I can't explain it either. Phillips may not be expensive, but it isn't what could be called cheap; it looks are undoubtedly an attraction for some, but not for me. its food and service are at best mediocre, and while some tables have a nice view of the harbor, where we were seated we might as well have been in Richmond.

To take the first of those statements in order: Dinner for three, including two appetizers, three main courses, two desserts, and $ bottle of wine but no drinks, cost $50 before tip, or closer to $60 after tip. I can't therefore imagine that it's a great deal cheaper than all the other restaurants at Harborplace, and I can't imagine not being happier almost anywhere else.

If you're being generous to the "decor" of Phillips, you perhaps call it eclectic. I call it a horror of exposed brick. Victorian gewgaws, soft sculptures, stained glass lamp shades that would make Louis Comfort Tiffany weep, plastic covered tables in the dining labyrinth, and in the bar a collection of sofas that could only have been brought together on the basis of their mutual hideosity.

The menu offers standard Maryland seafood, from oyster and clam appetizers through crab soup, crab Imperial and crab cakes, shrimp, lobster, a few fish dishes. Each entree comes with two vegetables, so for $8 or so one can perhaps have a quantitatively adequate meal of, say, fish, two veg, a couple of underbrowned brown-and-serve rolls and a glass of water.

Quality is something else again. Let me describe briefly our dinner . The clams casino were small and bitter, and the bacon on them was burned. The oysters on the half shell were acceptable – the high point of dinner – but accompanied by a sealed plastic container of cocktail sauce; the butter came in similar containers. The rolls I've mentioned. The salads were small and both the oil and vinegar and the French dressings were much too sour. The stuffed shrimp came to the table no more than lukewarm and tasted of nothing but the frying liquid. The filet of flounder also arrived lukewarm. The crab Imperial contained a respectable amount of decent crab meat, once one removed its armor-like topping of orange-brown sauce. The apple sauce was unattractively sweet, the broccoli-cauliflower combination vegetable was soupy, the baked potatoes were standard. Homemade strawberry pie turned out to be gluey mess, and the chocolate cake reminded me of a million commercial birthday cakes – at 5, I'd have loved it.

Our service was slow, and I warn all customers to beware of the wine list. I ordered a bottle ofCalifornia Chardonnay, at $7.50. The waitress brought a half bottle without comment, then said when I questioned here that that was all they had. I asked the price. She checked and came back to say it was $7.50. Consulting the menu, I pointed out that $7.50 was the price listed under "Bottle," not under "½ Bottle." Oh, she said, that means it's the price for whatever size bottle we have."

I'm delighted Harborplace is there, but in future I'll leave Phillips to its many admirers.

 

 

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