Sunday, August 18, 2002

" RESEARCH QUESTION: Earlier this year, the Travel section asked readers to share their mid-Atlantic beach faves (boardwalks, hotels, shops, etc.). When the results were published in mid-May, one name towered above the rest: Patsy's, a Bethany Beach, Del., restaurant revered by more than a dozen respondents -- and completely unknown to us. Then the debate began. In subsequent weeks, we heard from several readers who were equally passionate about Patsy's -- in a negative way.

We had to know: Is Patsy's a shore bet or an overrated beach bum?

" METHODOLOGY: We gave Patsy's (which doesn't take reservations) the Everytourist treatment, creeping into Bethany on a quiet Tuesday evening unannounced and hungry. Told that there would be a half-hour wait for a table on the spacious porch, we opted to eat inside and were led to a four-top behind the bar in a corner facing the kitchen. Only three of the dozen or so inside tables were occupied.

Eager to test Patsy's self-billed "Key West inspired cuisine," we ordered a variety of appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts. With a bottle of wine, our dinner tab for three (sans tip) came to $128.

" THE EXPERIENCE: Oh, Patsy's, how we wanted to love everything about you.

And, for the most part, we did. We loved the location, just a block from the main drag; it's a refreshing change from the milling masses spilling into and out of the tchotchke shops and snackaporiums lining Garfield Parkway. We loved the cheery porch and the bright, appealing (if loud) dining room, with its gaily painted tables and Pez dispensers lining shelves over the windows. We loved the laid-back atmosphere, abetted by the friendly staff and flip-flopped clientele.

But most of all we loved the food. While the entire menu is available for takeout, part of the fun about eating at Patsy's is in the splendid presentation. From appetizer to dessert, everything looked as good as it tasted. Unfortunately, even the prettiest food can go down with an aftertaste if the service isn't up to par.

Perhaps if we'd come a few minutes later or earlier, we'd have been spared. While other diners seemed to wallow in attentive service, we sat in our corner compiling a list of requests for our waiter: "Can we have plates for the appetizers?" "More water, please?" "Can you bring us our wine now?" "Did you forget our salads?"

He had, and because our entrees came out only minutes after we'd finished the appetizers, we canceled the order. In addition, the busboy never cleared the fourth table setting, tried to wrestle a plate away from us before we were done and allowed dirty dishes to stack up between courses.

When he finally did remove the dinner plates, he simply walked over to a trash can about 10 feet away and dumped the scraps into the receptacle as we watched.

Ah, but what scraps. With the exception of one appetizer (the $9 mussels, undeveloped little things foundering in a garlic/herb cream sauce), the food was exceptional. Another starter, conch fritters ($6) served with a chipotle pepper aioli, were meaty, golden-fried and grease-free.

For entrees, we went with two menu staples and the catch o' the day (rockfish) and weren't disappointed. We're still smacking our lips over the Caribbean mahi ($26), a pan-seared filet lording over a mound of coconut basmati rice and garnished with pineapple, mango and orange salsa. We didn't know quite what to expect from the Portobello Tower ($19), but the concoction -- mushrooms, roasted red peppers, spinach and goat cheese baked in a wheat crepe -- was wonderful, and a gracious nod to vegetarians. The rockfish ($27), fresh and delicious, sat on a bed of rice and was topped with a cream sauce pocked with roasted corn, leeks and tomato. We washed it down with a zippy Australian chardonnay (Buckeley's, $24) from Patsy's well-balanced wine list.

The best came last. While the Key lime pie ($5) was fine, a slab of Patsy's divine Double Chocolate Ganache Cake ($7) arrived warm and gooey -- and was devoured before it had a chance to cool.

" RESULTS: Service be damned -- we'd definitely go back to Patsy's, because the food is just that good. Besides, it's a welcome break from the all-you-can-eat crab leg buffets and pizza joints we usually frequent at the beach. Next time, though, we'll grab a snack so we don't arrive famished -- that way we can wait for a table on the porch. But if we have to ask for water, or appetizer plates, or dessert forks one more time . . .

-- John Deiner

Patsy's (121 Campbell Pl., Bethany Beach, Del.; 302-537-CHEF) is open daily for lunch and dinner through the summer; hours vary in the fall, so call ahead. Entrees start at $17; with wine and dessert, dinner for two is about $75.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company