"Nostalgia's not what it used to be," quipped novelist Peter DeVries.
The Annapolis Market House of days gone by that many Annapolitans remember so fondly had local character, the genteel feeling of an "old" place and a variety of merchants. Besides good food for on-the-spot eating, you could find at various times fresh fish, meat and baked goods, grocery items, fresh flowers and vegetables and more. And the food - and this may be nostalgia at work - seemed to have a "homemade" quality. Do you remember fresh oyster stew and fried chicken?
You may want to erase some of that memory if you visit the market's newest incarnation that made its official debut in September after years of near extinction, floods, false starts and political wrangling.
For as vendors came and went and over the years, the Market House slowly morphed into more fast-food court than market and, with one notable exception, that's exactly what it is today.
The remodeled market is open and airy with a long countertop and stools facing the harbor for the eat-in folks and colorful tables outdoors, weather permitting. The superb city maintenance crews keep it shipshape inside and out.
On several excursions there at lunch hour in recent weeks, I shared table and counter space with school kids on field trips, tourists, city retail and office workers, hardhats working in the area, strolling seniors and moms pushing strollers.
Crowds peak at midday, but Hard Bean Coffee stand at Midship Fresh Bar opens at 8 a.m. and most shut down by 7 p.m. - a bit later on weekends. There are seven food stops in all and one interesting new addition to downtown shopping.
You can eat "healthy" or get your entire day's calorie intake in one meal. So here goes ...
Amsterdam Falafel Shop
I'm betting that a falafel sandwich from this Market House vendor will become a big favorite with the downtown lunch crowd. On a couple of the days I was there, it was the only stall with a line waiting for service.
This popular street food native to the Middle East is fast, vegetarian, healthy and just plain delicious. Never tried one?
It all starts with warm pita bread and the falafel - the tasty little balls made from ground chickpeas or fava beans, then fried or baked. The rest is up to you. In addition to the falafel, I stuffed my pita from the array of toppings available - pickled and fresh vegetables, coleslaw, salads, yogurt, hummus, tahini sauce and more.
My small pita with falafel and toppings choices ($6.55 for whole wheat, $5.55 for white) was a perfect, guilt-free noonday meal. Amsterdam is like having a first-class food truck permanently parked at the City Dock.
Firenzes Gelateria and Café
If you want to watch temptation in action, hang around the exit nearest Firenzes Gelateria and Café. People who have just had a perfectly adequate lunch stop and stare at the good-looking gelato ($3.50 to $5.95 depending on how many scoops you can handle). They're all made right there and include favorite flavors: strawberry, etc., and some eye openers such as guava, pineapple with basil and honey ginger. If my combo of grapefruit and dark chocolate are any clue, my advice is give in and pig out. Good coffee and tea also are on the menu.
Goodlife Smoothie Bar and Annapolis Organic Market
You'll take awhile to figure out what kind of smoothie or other beverage your thirst needs at Goodlife. The list of choices is long, combining fruit and vegetable juices and other all-natural flavorings. Some of the combinations may sound unappealing - kale with cucumber and banana. Be adventurous. These smoothies ($3.99 to $6.99) go down easy.
My peanut butter with cocoa powder and banana was a winner and covered beverage and dessert in one cup. Goodlife also offers a variety of healthy snacks and a daily selection of hearty soups and chilies ($4.99 to $5.99).
At one lunch, we tried the Thai chicken variety. Goodlife's version is thick and meaty, but without the heat and spice of many Thai recipes. And for downtown dwellers in search of dinner ingredients, Goodlife also carries fresh vegetables, fruits and cheeses.
Just across the way, the same owners operate the Annapolis Organic Market, a cheerful space with canned and frozen foods, fresh eggs and dairy products, vitamins and supplements and personal care items. It's the only market merchant that brings something new and needed to the downtown shopping scene. Check it out.
Yellow Fin, Carl's Corned Beef and Deli, Kevin and Mike's Fries, and Midship Fresh Bar
Although sporting different names, these outlets fall under one owner. The energetic staff is quick and amiable and the service prompt.
Yellow Fin, named for the owners' restaurant on the South River, tries to capture some of the flavors, if not the ambiance, of the Market House of old - a raw bar, steamed shrimp and crab cakes. The results: mixed.
The six Chincoteague oysters ($7) I ordered on one visit were beauties - fresh, expertly shucked and with ketchup and horseradish separately on the side. The shucker must have thought I was a tourist. He offered up a free sample "just in case you've never tried one of these." My lucky day. Terrific.
A picture taped to the front of the stall depicts a luscious crab cake, obviously hand-crafted from prime jumbo lump meat. I immediately ordered the sandwich ($5.99, a quarter extra for lettuce).
Buried in the big cold roll was a bland patty of mediocre meat with not much back fin and seasoning. It was baked (for fast food purposes) rather than fried or broiled in the traditional way, thus draining additional flavor. A couple sitting next to me also ordered the crab cakes and declared them "really good," as they slathered them with ketchup and tartar sauce. Oh, well.
If the crab cake gives you that sinking feeling, right next door is Kevin and Mike's Fries and there, your heart will take a leap. These "Boardwalk style" potatoes are fresh, cut on site, perfectly fried and salted and delivered in a cup. Our "small" order at $4.75 was plenty, but nearby diners were easily polishing off medium and large sizes.
Carl's Corned Beef and Deli and the Midship Fresh Bar share space and both are the places to go if you're in a hurry. Carl's features the classic Reuben sandwich (corned beef on rye shaved thin and stacked), sauerkraut (not very sour), Swiss cheese and Russian dressing, and several riffs on it featuring pastrami and turkey, as well as hot dogs and other sandwiches (most at $6.99 and $7.99).
All of them, made at high speed, are meaty and come with a topnotch pickle on the side. There are better deli sandwiches up the street, but these are a cut above OK and served up in record time.
The aptly named Midship Fresh Bar offers breakfast items in the morning. At noon you can lunch from a good salad bar, ladle a couple of soups, or build your own sub from a selection of hot and cold ingredients - all at $8.49 per pound (market price that day). I put together a tuna salad sub one day and a hot meatball sandwich on another. Macaroni and cheese and chicken wings are right there, too. Nothing out of the ordinary, but it's easy to imagine a line of midshipmen piling it on.
With Main Street and the Dock area saturated with eateries of every description, the new Market House will be a magnet-like attraction for those with no time to ponder a menu or linger over lunch. If speed is your need, you'll love it. On the other hand, a piece of that fried chicken sure would taste good ...