Finding a restaurant in Howard County is often a game of hide-and-seek, especially in Columbia.
Although national chains are prominently located in big-box shopping centers, family-owned or independent restaurants tend to be relegated to the backside of grocery stores or obscure shopping areas. They often lack curb appeal or even visibility. Even the restaurants fronting Lake Kittamaqundi aren't really obvious, even to a driver on Wincopin Circle.
But there are many gems worth seeking out.
Elsewhere in the county, the greatest concentrations of restaurants are along Route 40 and in downtown Ellicott City, where newcomers such as Thai Aroma and Tea on the Tiber are adding to the variety.
Howard isn't really diner land, but there are two old-fashioned diners worth noting. Frank's Diner (7395 Cedar Ave., Jessup, 410-799-8198) started life in New Jersey and has been a local institution since it was hauled here a decade ago. The gleaming stainless steel and glass diner, circa 1959, is open until 2 a.m., with breakfast available anytime. The chicken and the meatloaf get rave reviews.
The Forest Diner (10031 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, 410-465-5395) is a more gussied-up version. It serves breakfast and down-home comfort foods from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
The Crab Shanty (3410 Plum Tree Dr., Ellicott City, 410-465-9660, www.crabshanty.com) looks rustic from the outside, but the exterior belies the upscale restaurant inside. The sprawling building is filled with antiques and artifacts, including the sled Bing Crosby was riding as he sang "White Christmas" in "Holiday Inn," parts of razed barns, old church pews and stained-glass windows from places as diverse as a Masonic hall in New York and homes in Pittsburgh.
The menu emphasizes seafood, especially crab. But this is no brown-paper-and-wooden-mallet place. Start with a cup of crab soup, then proceed to the crab cakes or crab Norfolk. The menu includes fish, veal, chicken and several cuts of beef.
G.L. Shacks Grill (9495 Old Annapolis Rd., Ellicott City, 410-715-8500) is more casual and has been serving Maryland crab specialties for four decades. The menu includes Tex-Mex, pasta dishes and beef and chicken favorites.
None of the big-name prime beef chains has a location in Howard, but Jordan'sSteakhouse in Ellicott City (8085 Main St., 410-461-9776, www.jordanssteakhouse.com) offers wonderful prime beef in a historic setting.
The outside is dark and mysterious; the inside is almost sultry, with a living room-style bar and lounge, a small downstairs dining room and an expansive space upstairs.
This is beef you could cut with a fork.
The french fries could become addictive. The wine list is long, with dozens of offerings by the glass. There is also an impressive Sunday brunch menu. The restaurant is not related to basketball player Michael Jordan or his restaurants.
Aida Bistro & Deli, a welcoming neighborhood place, has one of Columbia's famous hidden locations: a small strip mall amid an office/industrial area not far off Route 175 and Interstate 95 (7185-A Columbia Gateway Dr., Columbia, 410-953-0500, www.aidabistro.com). If you are lucky enough to find it, you will be well rewarded.