Bare Bones

St. John's Plaza

Ellicott City


Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Most dinner entrees $9.95 to $13.95.

Credit Cards: MasterCard, Visa.

When a restaurant's paper napkins could pass for hand towels, you can bet that knives and forks will take second place to fingers. This is certainly true at Bare Bones, a barbecue restaurant that specializes in ribs, but also does a respectable job with steaks and chicken.

With the steak, though, you'll have to use your cutlery on the nightly specials, which tend to be fancier but not as good as the finger food. The basic menu offers grilled beef, chicken and seafood dishes, rounded out with some appetizers, salads and sandwiches.

Bare Bones belongs in my category of "good time" restaurants -- places to go with a crowd that wants to drink, eat happy-hour munchies and sit down later to a simple, substantial meal that is served up quickly.

As a tavern restaurant, the place is a great success. On weekend nights, though, when the lights are lower and the specials are more ambitious, the restaurant seems like a meat-and-potatoes house that can't quite reach the next culinary echelon.

The large bar takes up half the restaurant; two split-level dining rooms form the other half. Neither funky nor formal, the turquoise and apricot decor combines the practicality of vinyl tablecloths with the elegance of draped fabric banners that canopy the lower of the two dining rooms.

There is no legitimate reason to start with appetizers here, as the only two worth having should be on the table with the main course. The beans on the appetizer menu turned out to be the same scrumptious barbecue-style beans served with the dinners -- plump, smooth butter beans in a rich, molasses-sweetened sauce with occasional nuggets of smoky ham.

Beware of getting too much of a good thing with the other worthy appetizer: The onion ring loaf, a towering tangle of sweet-fleshed, not-too-greasy rings, is enough to feed the local Girl Scout troop, so order the half-loaf for a table of four.

Wonder Wings are not too different from anyone else's, a generous portion of deep-fried wings rendered fluorescent orange with a thin coating of Tabasco, served with celery sticks and a gummy blue cheese dressing to help put out the fire. The chili was pleasant but lacked depth, and too much thickener marred the cream of crab soup.

Your choice of main dish is obvious. What isn't obvious to most people is the difference between the two kinds of ribs on the menu, baby back and spare ribs. Don't spend time agonizing; just order the combination plate, and compare the tender, fall-off-the-bone succulence of the baby back with the firmer and, to my taste, more satisfying texture of the spare ribs.

Each comes with its own sauce -- a smoky, sweet, tomatoey sauce for the baby backs, and a dark, spicy, vinegar-spiked sauce for the spare ribs.

Just make sure you order these well after opening time, when the grill is sure to have hit its stride, as one early visit yielded ribs that were soggy and characterless. On the second visit, the sauce had been properly laminated to the ribs through longer cooking at a higher heat, and edges were deliciously singed.

Except for the beans, the side dishes are a disappointment. Coleslaw is nicely chunky but limp under too much dressing, and the skin-on french fries look wonderful but taste mealy. A small side salad would be a welcome alternative to the coleslaw and applesauce offered with dishes from the grill.

The skin on the barbecued chicken should have been crisper, but the portion was generous and the char-grilled flavor was good. It was also very good on the swordfish steak, but good grill flavor and a delicious butter sauce were not enough to rescue the fish from terminal rubberiness. Also, for the cholesterol-conscious, the menu offers grilled boneless chicken breasts with either teriyaki or Cajun seasoning.

New York strip steak had been butterflied to expose more sides to the grill, and that multiplied its good barbecued flavor.

For dessert, there is an array of rich confections not made on the premises, the best of which is an overstuffed apple pie.