THERE ARE restaurants that are so much of their neighborhood, so congenial and so suited to their clientele, that the pleasures of patronizing them are greater than the mere quality of the food. In the case of Firestone's, in Frederick's pretty little historic downtown, the atmosphere is prime -- and frequently, the food is, too.
Firestone's still looks like the department store it once was, back when such places had pressed-tin ceilings, plank wood floors -- left worn and dark, more suitable than bright refinishing for this homey tavern -- and the narrow two-sided balcony that probably used to hold shelves and inventory. (There is also an intriguing but poorly lit triangular stained glass window shielding the emergency exit that was probably salvaged from one of the neighborhood's many churches.)
The decoration is happily spare, pretty much restricted to Toulouse-Lautrec-ish posters for liqueurs and the like. Most of the dining tables are upstairs; although there are a few tucked beneath the stairs, the square main room is largely given over to the bar and its throng of obviously regular patrons. The virtue of this wide-open arrangement is that you feel a part of the scene. From the windows, one can watch a continuous parade of Market Street traffic, a crush of a far more attractive kind than is common along Washington roads: families wearing Frederick Keys T-shirts and young women in floral dresses and summery hats and carriages carrying tourists through this historic district, even the odd sidewalk artist.
The downside of the unbroken space and metal ceiling is the noise level, which is always noticeably high and can be positively shrill around happy hour. Just don't plan to whisper sweet nothings here.
For the most part, the kitchen smartly plays to its strengths, sticking to straightforward, sure-handed technique and trying to put its own twist into the flavor combinations. And in the main, it succeeds; most of the missteps are in the flourish. Among the best dishes have been an appetizer of barbecued jumbo shrimp with a very good melon-onion slaw; sauteed mussels with a Gewurztraminer broth that added a bit of welcome acid for hot weather; and a bright and refreshing mango-avocado salad with watercress and ginger dressing that played happy havoc with the tongue: sweet, pungent and peppery, velvety and crisp all at once.
Both the fried calamari and the fried green tomatoes showed a practiced hand at the oil pot, being crisp and dry, but the "tequila lime cocktail sauce" for the squid had no noticeable distinction from the bottled sort. The tomatoes were encased in the opaque bread-crumb batter common to mozzarella sticks rather than the lighter egg and flour dip that shows off the fruit's sour-apple tang (depends on your preference, and obviously mine's for the latter), but the red pepper remoulade was good. Clams vinaigrette were actually sauteed, rather more like the mussels than the chilled dish one might expect, but tasty.
One real disappointment was the chilled lobster and fresh mozzarella "cocktail," which was yet another of those layered hors d'oeurves in a martini glass that are so cute and so clumsy. The cheese, tomatoes, scallions and dressing were difficult to toss, and in any case the lobster was a single oversize claw of the flabby boiled-foam sort that feels and tastes like a sponge. (The kitchen appears to have a corner on the lobster claw market; of three dishes involving lobsters, all seemed to have been concocted almost entirely of claw and leg meat, a fact that would seem less strange if there were a surf-and-turf offering on the menu that might be absconding with the tails.)
Among entrees, the pan-roasted duck breast is fine, a generous piece succinctly seasoned and succulent and stylishly set off with a rich sweet-tart blood orange-Vidalia onion glaze. (Say that three times) The horseradish that was supposed to heat up the mashed potatoes had gone AWOL, but that might have been for the best; it didn't need to crash the party. The pan-roasted pork loin was also a generous piece, the fisty equal of a steakhouse filet, and both the meat and the white corn fritters that accompanied it were beautifully cooked, but the papaya-strawberry relish was a miscalculation, the fruit too sweet and too pushy for the mild pork.
Veal scaloppini, a sort of Oscar lite with crabmeat, roasted corn and tomato dice in lemony veal stock, is another best bet, the meal still tender and the scattered toppings a nice textural distraction. The cornbread-stuffed chicken sided with grits is a clever pun -- corn-fed chicken with corn and corn, and all the parts individually good -- but one that loses a little of its punch after a few bites because of its repetitious taste and texture, and the tasso ham gravy only adds more weight. The crab cakes earn their "Maryland-style" title, big, lumpy and served with a better-than-average cabbage slaw.
The seared scallops and lobster ravioli was a near miss, the scallops nicely browned and tender but the ravioli stuffing close to tasteless (and the promised jalapeno would have given the mango-citrus cream sauce a welcome boost.) The lobster risotto -- spelled "rissoto" for at least several weeks, a typo that could easily be dispensed with in this desktop-publishing world -- is just short of very good; the lobster claws this time small and flavorful, the rice golden with saffron and the tomatoes and watercress in just enough quantity to add color and offset the cream; unfortunately, an overzealous hand with the salt made it cloy very quickly.
Fresh vegetables, particularly the asparagus and green beans, have been a fringe benefit of nearly all the dishes, just cooked through and still crisp.
Firestone's is just off the corner of Church Street, and it's easy to see why the street is called that, especially if you take advantage of the municipal parking garage on Church just east of Market Street; from the roof, you can see nine or 10 of the towers that John Greenleaf Whittier described as the "clustered spires."
Firestone's has a smallish but attractive wine list -- the owners are distant cousins to the Firestone wine (and tire) clan, and do carry a couple of their relatives' Santa Barbara wines -- and a nice range of beers, as well. They also offer about a dozen half-bottles of wine, which is an option that should be more common.