Like the Girl Next Door, Jilly's is Simple, Honest, and Like Thousands of Others
I have no good explanation for why I'd never been to Jilly's, until a recent visit there with my folks, who claim that they eat there all the time and so has everyone for years. Maybe it's that the cubist stretch of Reisterstown Road where Jilly's sits is so chaotic that a great pyramid could have been sitting there and I'd have missed it. And somehow I had gotten it into my head that Jilly's was a trendy little boutique restaurant for spoiled suburbanites.
Jilly's is more of a sprawling, cheerful neighborhood bar and restaurant. It's filled with memorabilia--unframed photos of sports legends and movie stars (we sat near a photograph of Barbra Streisand with her Star Is Born perm)--and a couple dozen TV sets. When we visited, there was a crowd of serious and territorial drinkers at the bar downstairs, but the upper levels were packed with relaxed and happy families.
Jilly's menu includes, along with its widely worshiped shrimp salad and baby back ribs, a couple dozen hot and cold sandwiches, chicken- and steak-based platters, a few Italian entrées, and a few more Southwestern entrées. The servers, who wear polo-style shirts emblazoned with the restaurant's logo, appear to be mostly young and capable, and if this all sounds more or less like a thousand other restaurants you've been to, I hasten to add that Jilly's is a thoroughly decent example of the species.
Among the appetizers offered at Jilly's, only one--potato pancakes with applesauce and sour cream ($3.95)--represents a departure from the norm, and we really loved them. Each about the size of a Peppermint Pattie, the little carb-packed latkes were fried to a golden but not overly oily sheen. We also tried Jilly's hot wings ($5.95), one of four wing types listed on the menu, and were mostly impressed with their plumpness and assertive heat.
Jilly's is indeed best known for its shrimp salad and baby back ribs--the menu touts them as "Baltimore's Best." The shrimp salad is a more or less traditional mayonnaise-and-celery preparation, but thankfully not showered with Old Bay seasoning. A shrimp salad platter ($12.95) comes with a little plastic cup of ordinary coleslaw and Jilly's greaseless and exceptionally tasty french fries.
The full-rack dinner ($15.95) showcases Jilly's baby back ribs and comes with coleslaw and either french fries or baked beans. The ribs were meaty, dry-seasoned, with no flavor or ingredient overwhelming the pleasure of biting around the bone. But I'm not truly a ribs fan--neither was anyone else at the table--and I'll have to skip around the problem of where to rank Jilly's among the area's other favorite ribs.
Chicken parmigiana served over angel-hair pasta ($9.95) was probably not the first thing you should order here, but it's a sensible inclusion on the menu of a family restaurant. There was nothing extraordinary about Jilly's version, but the chicken was plenty tender and the pasta not overcooked. Italian entrées have been a staple of American restaurant cuisine for decades, but the mainstreaming of Southwestern food is a more recent phenomenon. Not surprisingly, Jilly's steak fajitas ($8.95) have about as much to do with Southwestern cuisine as a tuna casserole. Not to say that there wasn't plenty of steak, but there was an overabundance of bell peppers and the sauce was far too sweet.
Ordering a tuna salad sandwich ($6.45) at a restaurant takes a little bravery--the tuna might arrive swimming in mayonnaise or filled with a horror like sweet relish. There was just enough mayo in Jilly's version to hold the tuna together, and the only addition was chopped celery.
What I liked about Jilly's was its commitment to being Jilly's. Baltimore is gradually accumulating good restaurants to accommodate the desires of chowhounds, foodies, heat seekers, and searchers of the new and exciting. There are even--and this is a big thing for Baltimore--restaurants worth dressing up for. But most of us are just looking for an affordable square meal in a place where we feel comfortable and where we're treated respectfully. I try to avoid referring to the offerings of any restaurant as "honest"; it's an overused and highly subjective term in food criticism. But it's the best word I can come up with to describe Jilly's. For mostly the better, it's honest food.
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