The Phoenix Emporium

8049 Main St.

Ellicott City

465-5665

Hours: Food served 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Drinks served until 2 a.m. daily.

Prices: Bar snacks, sandwiches and salad platters $3.95 to $6.95; most hot entrees $6.75 to $9.95.

Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

Like the neighboring B&O Railroad Station and Museum, the Phoenix Emporium seems planted at just the precise spot to collect the steady stream of souls who trickle down the hill into the heart of old Ellicott. If you are swept inside by the convivial scenes visible through the windows, you will find a small inviting tavern pleasantly cluttered with antiques that range from sleds to chamber pots.

The antiques and the abundance of nice old leaded glass may give the place an antediluvian atmosphere, but the joint jumps to college rock for a mostly under-30 crowd on weekend nights. Sports lovers have three television screens to choose among, but games take a back seat to conversation most of the time.

The Phoenix is especially inviting in the winter because of its inventive hot drinks, which include flavored coffees (such as a Spanish version that contains a shot of Licor Cuarenta y Tres, hot tea with Grand Marnier, hot cocoas with schnapps or coffee liqueur, and hot buttered rum.

Most of the things you want from a bar restaurant these days -- a good selection of domestic and imported beers, prompt service and reliable tavern food -- are delivered here. There are a few minor annoyances, such as the servers' slowness in offering glasses of water, and the badly planned restrooms, but these don't spoil the fun.

Fundamentally a beer house, the Phoenix offers an impressive list of imports ranging from the usual European to Greek, Indian and Trinidadian beers. Don't get too set on a particular choice though. It can be difficult to keep all 60 specialty beers in stock. A much smaller wine list offers a few reds and whites and a small group of sparkling wines. Both lists are supplemented by monthly specials; the time I visited, those included local and seasonal brews such as Wild Goose and Aass Winter Ale from Norway.

Unfortunately, although the atmosphere and the menu beg for it, there is no draft beer. And it is odd that a tavern specializing in imported beers would make the blunder of serving its ales and stouts (which demand storing and serving at cellar temperature) as cold as the lighter lagers and in frosted glasses.

Most of the menu is devoted to finger snacks and sandwiches, with a few salads and hot entrees for relief. Among the crunchies, go for the breaded zucchini sticks, which far outclass the typical frozen onion rings and french fries. The cracker-meal coating and al dente vegetables inside taste fresh and crisp. And I was impressed by an unexpected showering of freshly grated Romano cheese with Italian herbs. Even at $3.75, the zucchini sticks are a much better deal than the generously portioned but greasy potato skins.

The buffalo chicken wings might have been a better value at $4.95 had they been crisper. For the same price you can get baked brie with delicious garlic toast wedges, which will disappear well before the cheese.

At the higher end of the appetizer menu are crab balls, made from the same great recipe as the crab cakes on the entree menu, and barbecued spare ribs, which were firm and not too fatty but needed more thorough reheating. Texas chili is meaty enough but too sweet.

Because the house salad is a fresh but ordinary mixture of mostly iceberg lettuce with a few trimmings, you might want to splurge on the house's special blue cheese dressing, which has so much cheese that it's a protein course itself. The other dressings are unremarkable, and all dressings will engulf your greens if you don't request that they be served separately.

Grilled meats are a bit overdone, as were my steak sandwich and my companion's hamburger, but this should sort itself out when the Phoenix finds the evening grill cook it is seeking.

The burger was large and lean, with fresh greens and a good kaiser roll. The best beef sandwich in the place is the french dip, though, with its thin slices of top round on hot crusty French bread, with a little cup of concentrated pan juices.

When it comes to poultry, opt for the homemade, all-breast chicken salad instead of the turkey breast sandwich, which tastes as if it were made with turkey loaf. The vegetarian delight, served on whole wheat, is made with ample portions of good cheeses, but the "special sauce" can be cloying, as can the Russian dressing on the Reuben sandwich.

The high point of the Phoenix's menu is definitely its moist, virtually fillerless crab cakes, with their perfect, flavorful thin skins. Recent market prices were $6.50 for one and $13.95 for two. Crisp homemade coleslaw with a subtle dressing does the cakes justice.

Desserts are better than average for a bar restaurant. I can recommend the dense, spicy applejack walnut cake.