Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Wednesday, 6 to 10 p.m; Thursday through Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations at dinner only. Prices: Main courses at dinner about $6 to $10, appetizers and desserts about $2. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $15 to $20.
The 1700 block of Wilson Boulevard has developed into a small restaurant row with four or five eating places nearly adjacent, as exotic as Afghan and Thai, as familiar as an American bar-restaurant. That one is Camp David's, and it is a good example of what has become of the American bar.
It is indeed a full-blown restaurant, with flowers on the tables and tablecloths (white) on the tablecloths (paisley). Certainly the ambitions of the menu imply far more than a bar. But the front of the restaurant looks to be a gathering of the neighborhood, a social center among the bar stools, quiet and clubby, with the drinkers perhaps moving gradually to the tables for dinner or maybe to one of the other choices on the block. Because of its decent drinks, quickly served, and the attractiveness of the environment, Camp David's succeeds as a bar.
It is less successful as a restaurant, with the surroundings succeeding more than the food. The brick-walled room is lit by hurricane lamps in the evenings. The high ceiling is painted, with exposed ducts, in the currently fashionable high-tech mode. A few rubber trees and antique sideboards are the primary -- and sufficient -- decoration, along with church pew benches. This Victorian Evival dining room would find soulmates among the exuberant contemporary American restaurants cropping up in the Berkshires and Vermont.
Though the food heads in the right direction, it gives up too soon. For instance, homemade soups are on the menu daily. But the broccol soup would have been greatly improved if the soup base were better; it tasted like doctored-up canned cream-of-something soup. The onion soup almost reached glory, for it had a rich, beefy flavor to the stock and the sweet taste of long-cooked onions. But it needed degreasing, and the cheese and bread topping were inferior to the soup. Still the soups -- especially clear soups such as chicken and vegetable -- are some of the best of the kitchen's efforts. One day the appetizers included marinated brussels sprouts. Now there is a welcome unconventional idea for an appetizer. The sprouts were fresh and cooked just right, but their marinade tasted like bottled Italian dressing, and their garnish was mostly strips of boiled ham far to bland to battle the dressing.
Another special effort the kitchen makes is with the bread. Rolls are split and slathered with a spicy butter -- garlic, paprika, Parmesan cheese -- and grilled. All that trouble would be far more worthwhile if better ingredients, such as freshly grated Parmesan, were used. There is a potentially lovely house salad with olives and pimiento and a zesty anchovy dressing modeled after Caesar salad. But the greens are limp iceberg (no mean feat) and flabby shreds of spinach with tomatoes ranging from ripe to mushy with the dressing is just drizzled on.
The main course ingredients are more carefully chosen. Hamburgers are thick and lightly packed so they remain tender and juicy, topped with your choice of cheese if you wish, and accompanied by cottage-fried potatoes that unfortunately are over-cooked, sometimes to the point of being burnt. The result is still a very good hamburger platter -- as it should be for $5.95 -- but deserves a higher quality roll. Crabcakes are frequently on the menu -- at $8.95 -- and are probably the best choice. Two large cakes consist of lightly bound fresh crab with a faint mustard nuance that lets the crab dominate. They look less appetizing than they are, for they are pale rather than browned. The cook's timing works on other entrees -- rare filet ($10) and still-moist scallops ($8.50). But little skill was evident in seasonings; a filet tasted strongly of vinegar, and the cream sauce for the scallops had an unpleasant sweet undertone and the grassy flavor of excessive dried chives. The menu usually lists a puff pastry-wrapped dish, but it was sold out on my visits. The vegetable alternatives to the cottage fries that I encountered varied from plain frozen peas to fresh squash cooked with tomatoes and onions.
Desserts include most frequently an apple-pecan pie that is a mere shadow of an extraordinary apple-nut pie this restaurant served a year or two ago. It is too sweet, and the apples are lost in their sugary binder. Carrot cake is also a regular, along with cheesecake or a chocolate concoction served in a flowerpot.
The final predictable touch is coffee brewed with cinnamon. That's the hallmark of a fresh new-style American restaurant. And it is a nice idea as an alternative. I think, however, that coffee drinkers should be warned that cinnamon is going to scent their brew and be given the option of with or without cinnamon.