Rip's Casual Dining

American, Seafood
$$$$ ($14 and under)
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Editorial Review

Rip's Casual Dining has been a Prince George's County landmark for more than a half- century. The low-slung cluster of dark wood buildings along Route 301 (North Crain Highway) in Bowie includes not only the restaurant -- which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner -- but also a deli, a liquor store, a small motel and what is perhaps the county's best-stocked wine store.

All of this started back in 1952 when a farmer, recognizing the need for a place to stop along what was then the main north-south highway in the area, opened a small restaurant. The farmer's nickname was Rip, from his penchant for ripping his clothes while sliding during baseball games.

Since the 1970s, Rip's has been owned by a family business, Superior Management, and the restaurant's horse-stall decor reflects the family's horse-breeding ventures. Four rows of stalls -- each housing an individual booth and named after a famous racehorse -- make up two of Rip's four dining rooms. Decorations include racing prints, booth cushions that look like horse blankets and lots of tack.

Overall, Rip's looks like a 1950s roadhouse, something that could have been the prototype for the Cracker Barrel or Applebee's chains. Only Rip's is the real thing.

The menu is pretty standard American fare, and there is great attention to detail and the sourcing of its foodstuffs. The family business includes wholesale produce and seafood companies.

Superior Management President Marshele Burgess said that connection means Rip's gets deliveries of fresh produce six days a week, and the freshness is evident in the home-style vegetables. The mashed potatoes aren't from a mix; they have real lumps. And the green beans, cooked to death Southern-style, are accented with bits of onion and slices of bacon.

Rip's menu includes a little bit of everything, from seafood (mostly fried, though also available grilled or broiled) and steaks to old-fashioned standards such as liver and onions and meatloaf deluxe. At lunch there is a wide variety of sandwiches and salads, and the Sunday breakfast buffet is a local favorite.

Customers at Rip's are as varied as the menu's offerings: seniors who make weekly visits, youngsters with iPod buds in their ears, businesspeople from nearby office buildings and politicians from all over the state.

Staff members at the restaurant have a friendly diner attitude, which is endearing and welcoming. Service is prompt and attentive. The wine list on the menu is very limited, but for a $5 corkage fee, you can purchase any wine at the adjacent wine store and have it with your meal.

Standards such as fried calamari and mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat dominate the dozen appetizers. The crab pie isn't really a pie but a creamy casserole of backfin crabmeat topped with cheddar cheese and designed to be spread on the accompanying crackers. The dish arrives bubbling hot and is large enough for two to share.

Crab balls, with just enough dressing to hold them together, are crispy on the outside and utterly free of shell. Buffalo chicken wings arrive as plain fried wings that you dunk in a hot sauce that has plenty of fire and lots of taste. Even without the sauce, the chicken wings are meaty and flavorful. And the New England clam chowder is a satisfying blend of cream, potato chunks and chopped clams.

There are at least a dozen seafood offerings on the main menu and several specials each day. Crab, shrimp and salmon are the mainstays. And crab and shrimp can be combined with prime rib or filet mignon for a surf and turf special. The petite filet was a thinner cut from a wider portion of the filet, but it was cooked perfectly to medium rare. The single onion ring that adorned the steak was golden brown, but the onion was barely cooked.

Home-style dishes are what shine most at Rip's. The hot turkey sandwich features thin slices of breast meat from an actual turkey breast, cooked on the premises, instead of from some pressed turkey roll. The mashed potatoes taste like your mother could have made them, and the gravy actually accents rather than overwhelms the dish.

The meatloaf, my husband's standard for home-style cooking, is two large slices of Rip's beef, veal and pork recipe, topped with tomato gravy.

Desserts include several over-the-top chocolate concoctions. I'd skip those and focus on the hot apple pie with chunks of apple and a flaky crust, the smooth-as-silk homemade bread pudding or Granny's Surprise: a not-too-sweet but completely delicious pecan, coconut and chocolate chip pie.

--Nancy Lewis (Sept. 28, 2006)

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