Hours: Lunch: Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday brunch: 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Atmosphere: Intimate 18th century formality.
Price range: Brunch, $7.95 for adults and $4.95 for children under 10. Dinner, $8.95 to $13.95; children's menu. Lunch, $2.95 to $5.50.
Credit cards: Visa, American Express, Diners' Club, MasterCard.
Special facilities: Accessible to patrons in wheelchairs through an entrance off parking lot; parking lot in rear; highchairs and booster seats for very young diners.
The rain started early on a recent Sunday. Cancel the soccer game, the tennis match, the two-mile run and the bike ride. By 10 a.m. the rain was serious and the young natives were restless.
Why not break up the day with a drive into the country for brunch? We knew of but had not tried the perfect place: Penwick House in Dunkirk, which is 18 miles east of the Beltway's Pennsylvania Avenue exit (Rte. 4).
Dunkirk on a sunny day is a worthy destination. Chesapeake Bay beaches are not far; neither is Solomon's Island or Annapolis. On a rainy day there is only a restored tobacco barn where antiques and crafts are sold and the Penwick House, a restored wooden Victorian house filled with antiques and, more to the point for us, a buffet brunch table.
Brunch at the Penwick, served on Sundays only, is at a fixed price: $7.95 for adults, $4.95 for children. The price includes juice, hot beverage, as many visits to the brunch table as you can manage and, we soon learned, genteel and friendly service.
Since our visit to the Penwick was on a rainy day we didn't eat on the spacious flagstone terrace surrounded by flowers and overhung by leafy boughs. Instead, we headed inside, where a fireplace warmed our wet heads and chilled fingers.
The owners of the Penwick, which is about 2 years old, have turned the living room, dining room and glass-enclosed den into dining rooms. Our table was next to a window overlooking the rain-slick terrace and water-laden trees. Our waitress wore colonial garb and the tables were set with tablecloths, cloth napkins in napkin rings, glass goblets and other elegant niceties.
While the setting and style were pleasantly accommodating, the brunch table was a revelation. We've never seen or tasted anything quite like it. To start with the more ordinary dishes, there were scrambled eggs, eggs Benedict, pan-fried potatoes, homemade sausage, warm cooked fruit compote, sauteed apple rings, popovers and bran muffins (the recipe dating back to 1844). And that was just the first table.
On the next table the dishes were more unusual: creamed chicken, chipped beef, grits, beef stew, shepherd's pie, chicken legs, scalloped oysters and apple pancakes. And if that wasn't selection enough, there was also a platter of fresh cold fruits plus honey, syrup, butter and other necessary condiments.
Dazzling selections of food are nothing if the food isn't well prepared. But here the Penwick exceeded our wildest expectations. The only questions were, how many dishes could we try? Which ones were the best?
The shepherd's pie and scalloped oysters ranked high on everyone's list. The pie had well-seasoned ground meat, fried to a crisp and topped with mashed potatoes and a sprinkling of cheddar cheese. Like all the dishes, it was kept piping hot in a large casserole set over steaming water.
The sauteed apple rings, popovers and bran muffins were in a class by themselves: country fresh and simple, everything you expect when you drive to the country for brunch.
The only dishes that came off less than perfect were the scrambled eggs (dull) and the eggs Benedict (the English muffin was damp). Even so, they were worthy offerings.
Penwick House also serves lunch and dinner. At dinner, several of the main courses are available in children's portions.
We are planning to visit Penwick House again for brunch but next time we'll do things a little bit differently. We'll arrive more toward 2 p.m. and make a Sunday dinner out of this superb brunch.
The tab for our family of four (our children are over 10 years of age) was $33.39, including tax.