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Lively atmosphere, lofty expectations at Bernie's

October 15, 2006|by PHILIP McGULLET

Serving upscale grill-style food is a noble calling and a task that is challenging enough on its own. But when you start punctuating the menu with phrases such as "voted Maryland's best ..." you raise stakes and expectations of a destination restaurant that can be a lot more difficult to achieve.

Barefoot Bernie's on Dual Highway is a destination but not necessarily because of the food.

Bernie's and the adjoining Cancun Cantina are fun, lively places. Diversions are aplenty, from country line-dancing to big, bright high-definition televisions piping in whatever sporting event happens to be on at the time.

More than three hours from the beach, it still manages to convey a happy seashore atmosphere, particularly in the lofty bar area of the restaurant where spirits soar under the high ceiling and there is no seat that does not afford a view of one of the many TVs.

The food is reasonably priced, with plenty of entrees in the $10 to $15 range, and only the headier, crab-intensive items top $20. Sandwiches, wraps, burgers and the like are for the most part less than $10.

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The staff, while still learning the ropes in some respects, is cheerful and perpetuates the air of celebration. Drinks are excellent, particularly a big, frosty margarita.

Like the menu, this happy, swashbuckling atmosphere raises expectations, and in several notable areas, the food has trouble keeping up.

A round of appetizers for the table included Old Bay chicken wings and - since crab is pushed at the diner from many different angles, a bowl of crab dip.

The wings themselves were excellent, crackling on the outside and juicy within. The Old Bay was more of a hint than a statement, however, and next time we might be tempted to go with one of the heartier sauce selections.

The creamy crab dip was the right consistency but lost points for being, as one diner said, "more cheesy than crabby." A charitable assessment might call its flavor delicate, although the line between delicate and bland was somewhat blurred.

Elsewhere, Bernie's stampedes toward overstatement. If you have ever longed for shrimp, steak, crab, chicken and cheese elbowing each other for supremacy, here is the opportunity (the surf and turf quesadilla).

The chicken Chesapeake sandwich comes with provolone, bacon and, you guessed it, crabmeat. In fact, when Bernie's senses a dish needs to be punched up, it ladles in some crabmeat and that makes things satisfactory again. As for the sandwich itself, the diner found the individual ingredients to be good but somewhat dry with no binder or sauce to tie them together.

Similarly, the crab imperial was dry rather than creamy, almost to the point of crustiness. And no outburst of flavor was present to make up for the poor consistency.

Those inclined toward barbecue would be better going with the juicy and tangy pulled pork sandwich than the rack of ribs - Bernie's has a good, sweet and smoky barbecue sauce, but on this night the ribs were downright scrawny. They were far less meaty than the typical family-style chain and left us pitying the poor, underfed pig.

Likewise, a dish called "steak and cake" came with a strip steak that, while done medium-rare to order and of acceptable flavor, was thin and somewhat stringy.

The cake part of the dish was a big, appealing crab cake, which Bernie's pumps up as "voted Maryland's best." It has its merits - perfectly broiled, with big lumps of moist, white crab. But an Eastern Shore native frowned on the obvious pockets of filler that almost resembled dollops of Thanksgiving stuffing. There are probably two or three better crab cakes in Hagerstown alone, much less the whole state of crab-loving Maryland.

In the end, we were forced to sit back and reassess. Were we drinking, dancing and/or watching a game and not totally focused on the food, we might have felt better satisfied. Crispy fries, juicy wings and thick sandwiches all add up to be more than adequate as a half-time aside, or refueling for the dance floor.

And in fairness, food is only part of the equation at Bernie's. It is a fun time, lots of laughs with friends over drinks. If you view the food as part of the package and not the total package, your expectations in all likelihood, will be more than met.

Philip McGullet is a pseudo-nym for a Herald-Mail staff member who reviews restaurants anonymously to avoid special treatment.




Barefoot Bernie's 3 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Food: 3

Value: 3

Service: 4

Ambience: 5

Address: 901 Dual Highway,

Hagerstown

Hours: Barefoot Bernie's is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. The restaurant opens at 7 a.m. daily and stays open until midnight Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; and until 2 a.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. The kitchen closes at midnight each night.

Phone: 301-797-4424

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