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Zodiac Bar and Grill

May 24, 2009

Zodiac Bar and Grill is the restaurant within Hagerstown Hotel and Conference Center on Dual Highway about a mile north of Interstate 70. Formerly the Four Points Sheraton, the hotel is under new management. It has a new name, a new look and new staff.

Zodiac Restaurant did not quite have its act together yet, but the drama was outstanding, the food was good, the welcome was warm and the invitation to return was sincere. It was altogether a grand evening, more than dinner, a little less than theater.

I have always loved hotels. I read Kay Thompson's book "Eloise" and envied the little girl who lived in the Plaza Hotel in New York City and ordered room service. I stayed in The Phoenix hotel in Washington, D.C., when I was in first grade and I was smitten.I have loved the excitement, the adventure, the romance of hotels ever since.

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So my friend and I embarked on our journey down Dual Highway early one windy, rainy Saturday night. The bar featured an extensive selection of beers and wines and a special list of martinis named for signs of the zodiac, such as Libra lunar tini and Cancer chocolatini and Aries flirtini. Bar food -- appetizers, salads and sandwiches -- is one aspect of the food and beverage side of the hotel "house."

Fine dining is another aspect, and this was our goal. So we entered the dining room. Décor was more austere, more sophisticated, more black-and-white than under the hotel's previous management, but the different levels and the arrangement of tables and booths remained the same.

Our waitress served us warm rolls and butter, asked what we would like to drink and left us with menus. Back in a flash with water and iced tea, we told her we were not ready to order. It was a difficult choice among the starters, soups and salads, the main courses and the pasta. She told us we could also order from the lunch menu if we wished. And so we returned our decision-making process and ended up with a salad, an entrée and a sandwich.

Hotel restaurants are under the hotel management and that is both an advantage and a problem. Case in point: I mentioned to our waitress that I would order dessert later. She blanched and said, "There are no desserts," then fled. She came back with her mother, who explained that the food staff was short-handed while catering two weddings that night. She offered a free backup dessert: pudding with whipped cream.

Our meal was good. I chose the crab cake sandwich on a Kaiser roll. This crab cake respected the fine Maryland tradition of simplicity -- the patty was all lump meat with no filler. The fries that came with it were hot and tasty. I forgot the pickle was there.

My friend ordered a salad with honey-mustard vinaigrette dressing and shrimp and scallop linguine in a cream sauce with garlic, basil and white wine. The salad was composed of leaf lettuces, tomato, cucumber, carrot and a miniature cob of corn. She was satisfied with it. She also liked the linguine. The shrimp in the dish were very tasty, though the scallops were rubbery. The iced tea was good and strong.

Looking up from our conversation we saw the evening sky had become dark and ominous. Then lightning flashed and thunder roared. Chillingly, we saw a fire truck arrive at the hotel's entrance. I went to the entrance of the hotel and waited for the firemen. A fireman emerged, took out a step and placed it against the rear door of the fire engine. He opened the door, and, to my surprise, a couple stepped out. The guests of honor for the wedding had arrived. No fire, but rain fell in buckets.

I went back to my friend and our pudding, served with real whipped cream. In the bar, a musician hooked up his guitar and began to sing something about rain. Torrents fell on the swimming pool outside. Our waitress told us she would be unavailable for a time. She had a room service delivery (a third aspect of a hotel's food service), and later returned with a story about her adventures.

After our meal we explored the hotel and encountered a fourth aspect of hotel food: catering. Down one corridor we found one of the night's two weddings. A DJ played very loud music for a very young crowd of dancers. We watched, then found the second wedding and peeked in. The music there was Middle Eastern, as were the guests. The bride, of Persian ethnicity, we were told, wanted everything to be blue -- blue candles, blue drapery, blue baubles, blue dresses. This wedding was glamorous and restrained.

I think this is what I like the most about hotels. Major events of our lives are celebrated at hotels. There is food and drink, music and dancing. A flash, like lightning. A note of music. A dance, a blue dress, a drink, a cup of pudding.

Omni Vore is the pseudo-nym for a Herald-Mail freelance writer who reviews restaurants anonymously to avoid special treatment.

Zodiac Bar and Grill

Food: 3 1/2 stars

Service: 3 stars

Ambiance: 3 stars

Value: 4 stars

Address: Hagerstown Hotel and Conference Center, 1910 Dual Highway, Hagerstown

Phone: 301-790-3640

Web: http://www.zodiacbargrill.com

Hours: The restaurant opens at 6:30 a.m. weekdays and at 7 a.m. on weekends. It serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and closes at 9 p.m. daily.

Style: American food

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