Cover to Cover Bookstore Cafe

Owen Brown Village Center

Columbia

381-9200

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday; 9 a.m. to midnight Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Most dinner entrees $10 to $15.

Credit Cards: American Express, Diners Club, Mastercard, Visa.

I'll skip the obvious "food for the body and the mind" spiel and get straight to the point: Cover to Cover Bookstore Cafe is a delightful respite from the generic food and architecture of the franchises.

The cafe has a more subdued hip than its Dupont Circle predecessor, with good but not startling local art on the walls and, on weekends, live new age and classical music that zaps stress even before the wine arrives. The small, well-appointed dining room is set apart from the bookstore with a windowed partial wall that affords a good view of the store's "Life Processes" section -- with titles like "Celebrate Mid-Life," "What's So Bad About Guilt" and "The Tao of Leadership" to inspire dinner conversation. Articulate young "waitrons" will take any amount of time to describe the specials of the day and maintain a high level of solicitous service throughout the meal.

And there is a small but well-balanced wine list dominated by American wines (most are avaliable by the glass) and a short list of domestic and imported beers.

Those who like light cafe menus will enjoy piecing together a simple dinner with the homemade soup of the day and one of the cafe's fresh salads or sandwiches. Main-dish salads boast interesting textures and flavors, especially the smoked turkey salad with its buttery chunks of Jarlsburg cheese and green grapes in a sherry mayonnaise. A too-liberal dose of black pepper overwhelmed this salad when I ordered it, but I suspect that this was a fluke.

Sandwiches range from corned beef or turkey Reubens to white tuna; all are generous, chunky, freshly prepared and served on top-notch homemade breads. The hamburgers are faultless, presented with homemade skin-on french fries.

The hot appetizer and entree menu could take a walk on the lighter side. Apart from the pasta dishes and two designated low-cholesterol fish plates, a general heaviness prevails. Coatings on deep-fried appetizers such as chicken fingers and zucchini sticks are a bit leaden, although the chicken is redeemed by a lovely honey mustard sauce. The hot crab dip is good. And heaviness can truly be forgiven in the case of the rich, cheesy, hot spinach and artichoke dip, served with toasted rounds of a nutty homemade bread.

Maryland crab cakes are a reliable choice here. The two chubby wheels of pure backfin meat can be ordered broiled or fried. Pasta is beautifully cooked and sauced, with a daily special available in addition to the Primavera on the menu.

The plate-dwarfing prime rib with freshly grated horseradish is a good value at $15.95, best enhanced by a side of the cafe's stellar Potatoes O'Brien (red-skinned potato chunks sauteed with green pepper, herbs and two kinds of onion.)

Avoid such ill-conceived dishes as Pecan Dijon Chicken (fried, pecan-coated chicken breast with mustard sauce) and Chesapeake Chicken (chicken breast topped with crab meat and hollandaise sauce,) which, even if perfectly executed, would be unsuccessful flavor combinations.

The coffee, over which local literati hold forth at their leisure, is uniformly good. There are regular, flavored and espresso coffees, but the cappucino is in a class by itself. Creamy, cocoa-dusted froth covered some of the best I've tasted.

Desserts are dense and rich. With a lineup that includes Tollhouse cookie cheesecake, chocolate chip fudge cake and chocolate pecan pie, a simple fresh fruit dessert would be a good addition to the menu.

Besides breakfast, lunch and dinner, the cafe offers a Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and a British-style High Tea from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. every day.