Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. Closed Monday.
Price Range: Most dinners are $10.95 and include appetizer and dessert.
Atmosphere: Quiet but informal.
Special Facilities: Large parking lot; booster chairs; accessible by wheelchair.
Credit Cards: None. Cash or checks only.
Reservations: Suggested for weekends.
A great deal has changed during the dozen years since I last visited the Meadowlark Inn in Poolesville.
Houses now dot the meadows around the inn, which used to be "out in the country." By taking the River Road route one can still enjoy pretty patches of forest, but ersatz castles and tudor hodge-podge along the way have changed the feeling of the trip. Poolesville now is almost a suburb of Rockville.
The Meadowlark began as a small, pretty place with baroque, blue-and-white wallpaper and little tables set with white linens and fresh flowers. It was perfectly neat, almost dainty. Then it was owned by a Hungarian couple and had a European ambience. The menu, I recall, included a superb goulash and spaetzle.
A recent visit revealed a wholly different Meadowlark. Ownership has changed and the inn has been expanded to twice its former size. The addition built several years ago, is decorated in a puzzling conglomeration of styles: pseudo-flocked vinyl wallpaper, elaborate chandeliers that give very dim lighting, early American knick-knacks, ladder-back chairs, huge cross-beams on a dark ceiling. Waitresses are costumed to evoke another time and place, but we couldn't tell what it was.
The tables are still pretty, set with very nice Danish-style china and good linens.
As for the menu, the number and types of entrees listed should have been fair warning. It is rare, if ever, that a restaurant can do well so many types of food. The Meadowlark menu offfer 18 entrees, ranging from roast lamb and turkey to Maryland style crabcakes to continental veal and sole dishes to Italian manicotti, plus good old American standbys such as steak, fried shrimp and spareribs.
There is prime rib, but only on Friday and Saturday nights. Except for the steak, none of the entrees is more than $10.95, a price that brings a great deal of food. A dinner includes appetizer, entree with copious amounts of vegetables, salad and dessert. Children under 10 may order anything on the menu for half price.
Two words describe the food at the Meadowlark: abundant and disappointing.
Of all the food we ordered, the appetizers were the best. Pickled herring tasted as though it had been prepared in house, with chopped fish mixed in a nice, tart onion and vinegar sauce. Chopped liver was rich and dense. Chicken soup, clearly made on the premises, was good though fatty. Fruit cocktail, although described by the waitress as fresh, was canned and served in a heavily sweet syrup, with four thin slices of banana on top.
Salad was poor: small pieces of lettuce, mostly iceberg, drowned in an overly sweet dressing that would have better suited a dessert.
Main course portions were ample but smaller amounts of fresher ingredients well prepared would have been more appreciated.
Fried shrimp were large an numerous, but tasted of time spent in the freezer. Crab cakes were similar -- large, but decidedly not made from fresh crab meat.
Even the sirloin steak -- at $13.95 for a one-pound portion, the most expensive item on the menu -- was neither tender nor favorful. It was grainy, dry and bland.
Often a chef's special will succeed where other dishes fail. In this case the special was stew, a dish that might well suit a country inn. Unfortunately, the meat was mixed into a dark brown, overcooked gravy that tasted canned and drowned the rice base. The half-dozen previously frozen peas on top seemed an insult rather than a garnish.
Desserts followed exactly the pattern of the entrees: large portions but neither authentic preparation nor particularly fresh ingredients. Baked Alaska turned out to be cold, overly sweet gelatin-and-ice cream concoction doused with frozen strawberries. Fudge cakes did not seem fresh or chocolatey. And the apple brown betty, certainly a simple enough dish to prepare and one that would suit a country inn in autumn, was gummy and mushy, with damp bread crumbs of an unappetizing color and minute amounts of apple.
Any of the dishes on the menu, if simply prepared with fresh ingredients, could have pleased. But emphasis on canned and frozen food unfortunately undercut the pleasures of abundance.