One of Howard County's most attractive restaurants for civilized dining has to be Waterside in the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Columbia. Situated on the lakefront with a dramatic view of Lake Kittamaqundi, Waterside offers a panoramic vista of nature in an upscale setting.

Many diners seem to be enamored these days with the new big-box places popping up everywhere. They are fine for the most part, but often so noisy that quiet dinner conversations are difficult. In contrast, Waterside has a peaceful atmosphere that goes well with the natural lakeside setting. Catering to hotel guests and locals, this restaurant offers surprisingly affordable fare.

During a recent visit, we were seated by the window. We started began by sampling a few of the starter courses. The Maryland crab bisque ($5) was a cup of lump crabmeat in a fairly thick but flavorful cream base laced with sherry.

My guest's Coffey salad ($7.50) included iceberg lettuce and other chopped greens combined with onion and anchovy (optional) in a white wine vinaigrette. This salad is a Baltimore tradition popularized at the Pimlico Hotel in Baltimore, according to the menu .

The entree menu at Waterside is not very lengthy, but it includes a nice array of beef, chicken, seafood, vegetarian, pasta and pork selections. There are also several daily specials.

My dinner partner chose the four-ounce filet mignon, accompanied by three of the chef's crispy shrimp. They were coated with shredded phyllo, deep-fried and served with an apricot horseradish dipping sauce. The fork-tender filet was slathered with a demi-glace sauce. This dish ($22) was very attractively presented with a beautiful side of mixed seasonal vegetables and Southwestern golden mashed potatoes.

I decided to try another one of the chef's special offerings, a 10-ounce cut of prime rib, which was also covered in a demi-glace and came with the same side dishes ($19). I was very happy with the quality of the beef, but I would have preferred no sauce. Most often, prime rib is presented just with au jus sauce on the side, and the wait staff did not mention the demi-glace..

For dessert, we shared a very generous portion of creme brulee ($8), which had a touch of amaretto and apple flavors. It was good, but not memorable. The dessert lacked the superior light, creamy texture one would expect at that price.

Our tab for two, including a round of cocktails before dinner and a glass of wine with our meals, came to $55 per person after we included the gratuity for our excellent service. Because the restaurant caters to hotel guests as well as local residents, there are a number of lower-priced entrees from which to choose.

In fact, even the dinner menu includes three sandwiches. One can also order a half-chicken dinner for $12, penne pasta with grilled chicken and sausage for $13, and a vegetarian fettuccine for $14.

Executive chef Sean Cavanaugh was trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. His creativity is displayed routinely through the daily specials offered and in several of the appetizers and entrees on the printed menu.

For my money, it is difficult to beat the ambiance at Waterside. In keeping with the nature theme, walls are a dark hunter green adorned with first-rate waterfowl pictures. The round dining space on one side has small tables adjacent to the windows, with the interior space filled with larger banquette seating covered in a muted but colorful tapestry. Fresh flowers and candles on the table complete the subdued and quietly elegant setting.

Waterside Manager Antwanne Best said business from local residents has been on the upswing in recent months. He also said the restaurant's Sunday brunch, which has two seatings, continues to be very popular with Howard residents.

Surrounded by office buildings, the Columbia Sheraton is the only hotel in downtown Columbia, so it is a great spot for a quiet business power lunch or dinner meeting.

The restaurant itself can accommodate private parties as large as 45, and the hotel's other meeting rooms and banquet space will hold up to 200 people for a sit-down or buffet-style dinner. The Sheraton is often booked for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other occasions. Waterside is the meeting place for one of the county's Rotary Clubs.

Waterside, Sheraton Columbia Hotel, 10207 Wincopin Circle, Columbia. 410-730-3900. Open for breakfast Monday through Saturday 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. Sunday breakfast 6 to 10 a.m. Sunday brunch seatings at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. and Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m. Reservations recommended.

Chef Jorge Moreno, left, displays a chocolate torte, also shown below, and manager Antwanne Best shows bread pudding served at Waterside restaurant in the Sheraton Columbia Hotel.