Frederick Road / Edmondson Avenue, Catonsville / Ellicott City
You've driven past it a hundred times and seen the big, historic cars parked in the drive out front. Maybe the folks got you dressed up and took you there as a kid. Well, these days dinner's usually on you, but for a special occasion, there's still a good time to be had at the Candle Light Inn (1835 Frederick Road, Catonsville,  788-6076). Set amid woods a bit west of the Fred Road strip, the Candle Light still offers fine food and slick service, and nowadays there are offerings to appeal to the hipster in you as well as to your Aunt Gladys. You'll pay for the privilege, of course (unless you come for the reasonable early-bird dinner), but the post-meal walk in the moonlight is free.
Locals refer to it as the Nine Mile House, and Dimitri's (2205 Frederick Road, Ellicott City,  747-1927) is definitely the locals' joint, in glaring contrast to the upscale places catering to antique-hunting hordes on Ellicott City's Main Street. This roadhouse (perched, fittingly, at a bend in the road) is jammed with folks ordering from a menu that emphasizes not just Greek but Italian, American, and German dishes as well. Think dolmades followed by sour beef and dumplings. Or crab cakes with linguine. For a classic visit, order Dimitri's classic sandwich, the Beef-Ke-Bob.
A true cheap-eats delight awaits at the Trolley Stop (6 Oella Ave., Ellicott City,  465-8546), a historic former inn at the gateway to historic Ellicott City. You can get the usual salads, soups, and sandwiches in the grubby-chic downstairs tavern, but the top floor boasts a pretty dining room, and there are nightly specials (lobster, prime rib, swordfish) that weigh in at under $10. Everything is fresh and homemade, from soups to desserts.
Just a few steps from one of old Ellicott City's thronged antique malls, Tersiguel's (8293 Main St., Ellicott City,  465-4004) is an oasis of civility and calm, an intimate, candle-lit converted rowhouse that's perfect for a romantic dinner a deux. Sip on something your server recommends from the wine cellar, nibble on the house-smoked salmon, and relish some of the region's finest French country cooking. It'll cost you, to be sure, but then you'd just blow the money on some junk at the antique mall, so enjoy.
If the word "tavern" conjures up an image of grungy rusticity, you're in the wrong place, Bubba. The Mill Towne Tavern (3733 Old Columbia Pike, Ellicott City,  480-0894) is a perfect special-occasion place (with mostly normal-occasion prices). The menu is inventive and eclectic; the chef makes the most of seasonal ingredients, with an emphasis on light and fresh. Oh, he'll grill you a prime piece of meat, but see what he can do with the seafood. The 19th-century building has been lovingly restored, which is how you'll feel after your repast.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201