Well-prepared food, uneven service at Michael's Cafe

Michael's Cafe is nearly 30 years old, but it's still hot.

On a recent Thursday night, the Timonium restaurant was hopping. The warm, wood-filled bar was packed, and by 8 p.m., so was the dining room. Since its opening in 1984, Michael's has expanded several times; a current construction project will add an outdoor bar and more seating.

Eavesdropping on tables around us, we realized most diners were repeat customers — back, no doubt, for Michael's capable takes on classic American food.

Michael's menu holds few surprises, but the kitchen, lead by chef Warren Norris, does a good job with traditional food. Unfortunately, food is only one part of a restaurant experience — and Michael's has room to improve in the service department.

Scene When we arrived, just before seven o'clock, the friendly hostess showed us to a table in the back of the dining room, asking us if we minded sitting next to the kitchen. We said no but regretted the move a few minutes later, when we heard the first crash of dishes, dropped by a busboy into a tub just outside the kitchen door.

But it was a busy night, and we didn't have a reservation — we'll take the blame for the less-than-stellar table.

The table location would have been easier to swallow, though, with a more enthusiastic waitress. Not every waitress has to be chipper, and maybe ours was just having a bad day. But when she took our orders without even a hint of a smile (or a word about the specials), it left us feeling more like nuisances than welcome guests.

Appetizer Still, the food part of our meal started off strong, with oysters, broiled and topped with Parmesan and Romano cheeses ($10.50 for a half-dozen). Some of the oysters were on the small side but they were nicely cooked, and the sharp cheese provided an interesting counterpoint to the oysters' briny flavor.

Occasionally, the strength of the cheeses overpowered the oysters. But even then, we enjoyed the salty, cheesy bite. We made quick work of the six oysters, then used crunchy garlic toast to sop up the oysters' juices and catch the last few sprinkles of roasted cheese.

Entree Entrees were pleasing, for the most part. The 6-ounce filet mignon ($25) was just right, with a well-seasoned crust encasing a tender red center, cooked to medium rare.

Wine A glass of Ruta 22 ($9), a smoky and smooth Malbec from Argentina, chosen from Michael's approachable but interesting wine list, paired well with the beef.

A small dish of sauteed mushrooms and onions ($4) was a sweet and earthy condiment for the meat. A scoop of mashed potatoes, on the other hand, was dry, underseasoned and disappointing.

Sea scallops a la Michael's ($22) arrived in a small cast-iron pan, swimming in a sauce of cream, wine and Parmesan cheese. The sauce was subtle and lovely; not too heavy on the cream or the wine. The scallops themselves were plump, and a side of broccolini — the vegetable du jour — was fresh and cooked nicely.

But we had one complaint about the scallops: that cast-iron pan. Because it was hot, the scallops kept cooking as they sat on the table. Our first scallop was perfect; the second was slightly overcooked.

At that point, we rescued the rest of the shellfish from the pan, placing them on the plate. That did the trick, and they stopped cooking before they hit the rubbery stage.

Service Unfortunately, a laundry list of service problems marred what was an otherwise good meal. Side salads never arrived. Bread plates were swiped without warning. A steak knife, blade out, nearly flew off a plate when the entrees were delivered (we ducked). And once we had our food, our waitress disappeared entirely, only checking back in when our plates had been cleared.

Our experience doesn't necessarily indicate a systemic problem with the service at Michael's. Spying on nearby tables, we saw at least one other waitress with a happier demeanor and more attentive style.

Dessert Dessert was a large slice of Black Russian cake ($6), chocolate cake loosely based on the vodka and Kahlua cocktail. The cake was a moist, sweet end to the meal (though we tasted more chocolate than coffee).

By the time we left, every table in the dining room was filled. Friends laughed and families bonded over crab cakes. In the bar, every stool was occupied.

All the good cheer left us feeling off-balance. One service misstep after another dampened our mood. But on the merits of the food alone, our dinner at Michael's was a good one — worthy of the restaurant's three decades of popularity.