Growing, Diverse Dining Scene Discovers a Home in the Valley
It’s nice to have choices. That’s what makes going out to eat something special. Fast food drive-throughs notwithstanding, we expect restaurant meals to satisfy a sensory indulgence as much as hunger. The standouts combine vibrant energy with a passion for food and a welcoming atmosphere.
In the heart of Middletown and throughout the valley, foodies are finding a resurgence of local dining options that fit the bill. Becky Axilbund, manager of Main Street Middltown, is excited about the additions. “I think these things will make people who live here happy. It gives them options and a reason to stay close to home.” Four new places opened in September, with a micro-brewery planned for spring 2020. Axilbund hopes visitors come for a meal and discover the town’s beauty and 250-plus-year history as a bonus.
Longtime business owners see an upside, too. Cybele Cook of Dempsey’s Grille says, “It’s a draw for the entire town. The restaurants that opened have not decreased our business. We continue to grow.” Resident Joana Kontos Tsinonis agrees. She opened Aleko’s Village Cafe in 2008 and frequents other Middletown restaurants. “I love the way it’s going. There is plenty of room. Nobody wants to eat the same thing every night.”
Variety is the spice of life.
Ann Miller channels her love of travel into Abbraccío, meaning “hug.” Her shop serves gelatos and sorbettos which can be sandwiched between cookies, mounded onto store-made waffle cones, dished or dipped. Miller and mixologist Misti Lovell perfected 50-plus rotating flavors, including spumoni, stracciatella and tiramisu, alongside caramel popcorn, hazelnut and birthday cake. Lovell grins, “The pumpkin and chai flavors go really good together.” She crafted Abbraccío’s “Elvis”—marshmallow and peanut butter swirled into a banana base. That’s a dessert fit for a king!
Aleko’s Village Cafe
Tucked behind the Fountaindale Exxon, Aleko’s offers Greek cuisine and is named for the owner’s restaurateur father. She chose the unconventional site to be near her children’s school.
“The staples,” says Tsinonis, “Gyro and souvlaki, the spanakopita, those are original recipes, the way my parents did it for 50 years at their D.C. restaurant.” Olive oil and feta are imported from Greece and the counter is usually laden with handmade pastries. Customer requests inspired Aleko’s vegan/vegetarian dishes. New customers are surprised by the quality amid such humble surroundings. When Tsinonis makes taramosalata (caviar spread), customers laugh, “I can’t believe I’m getting caviar in a gas station.”
Hankering for Hunan chicken or Szechuan beef? Asian Cafe has it covered, and will even deliver for a nominal fee. The expansive menu covers Chinese, Japanese and a few Thai favorites, with lunch specials and dinner combos, sushi, soups and appetizers. Fans enjoy the hearty portions and clean, modern decor.
Black Hog BBQ
Mike and Lori Tauraso’s first Black Hog BBQ opened on South Market Street in 2008. Now, Middletown is the budding chain’s latest and largest location. The space is casual and bright with a bar that’s perfect for Thursday’s ladies’ night. Mike, a classically French-trained chef and serial entrepreneur, started barbecuing as a backyard hobby and loves its rustic, “authentic” style. Beef and pork are infused with smoky oak, while hickory flavors the ribs. (Tuesday is rib night.) Desserts and sides are made in-house.
Opening day diners devoured mounds of Carolina chopped pork and juicy strips of Texas brisket as the Taurasos beamed like proud parents. Mike appreciates the support. “We want customers to have the best experience, always.”
Cinco de Mayo
Anchoring one end of the Cross Stone Commons plaza is Cinco de Mayo’s fifth restaurant. There’s a patio outside and cozy seating inside, eschewing the bright trappings of many Mexican restaurants. Lunch portions are served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday to Friday, including crisp-shelled taco salads, quesadillas, sizzling fajitas and build-your-own combos. Starters include nachos, guacamole prepared tableside and meaty queso con carne. There are plenty of vegetarian and gluten-free options on the menu and happy hours are from open until 7 p.m.
Deb’s Artisan Bakehouse
Described as “all-scratch, rustically executed, small batches of hand-crafted deliciousness,” Deb’s is all that. The shop only opens on Saturday and Sunday mornings, so fans line up for oversized treats with the signature layers of mahogany-crusted puff pastry in a myriad of sweet and savory combinations.
Regulars are greeted by name at Dempsey’s Grille. The restaurant is open at 6:30 a.m. most days, so early risers can get a hearty, homestyle breakfast like steak and eggs, omelets or Belgian waffles. The menu is packed with American favorites. Meats are roasted and thinly carved for sandwiches. Burgers use fresh beef from a local butcher and specials often feature a catch of the day. The salmon BLT salad is a new favorite, while Dempsey’s crab cakes are perennial winners. Catering is available, but you can always grab a quart of soup or a slice of pie for later.
Fratelli’s Italian & Seafood
Fratelli’s has built a strong following since opening in December 2018 at Cross Stone Commons. The restaurant has a relaxed vibe with Mediterranean flair. The owners’ successful Hampstead site earns accolades as Carroll County’s “best crab cakes” and “best Italian restaurant.”
The scratch kitchen includes house-made pasta, which guests can watch fall from the gleaming pasta maker in the dining room. It’s a perfect complement to Fratelli’s shrimp scampi, meat penne or “Fettuccine Gypsy.” The chicken Chesapeake, topped with a jumbo lump crab cake, is always popular, as are their hand-cut steaks, chicken parmesan and salmon on mash.
Maryland National Golf Club’s Shroyer’s Tavern is open for lunch and dinner. The tavern includes panoramic views of rolling fairways amid dramatic terrain, a two-story stone fireplace and room for 175-plus guests. Executive chef Matt Strawsburg highlights local offerings as specials, along with golf course staples like burgers and chicken wings. The menu features seafood favorites such as Old Bay crab nachos, pan-roasted coho salmon, blackened monkfish and no-filler jumbo lump crab cakes.
Tapia’s On Main
Brothers Antonio and Jose Tapia ran a Hagerstown pizzeria for 20 years before opening Middletown’s newest addition, Tapia’s On Main. It sports a modern-industrial finish and open dining, better for watching pizzas dash in and out of their brick oven. Specialty pies include the “Chios,” topped with feta, kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes and pepperoncini; and the “Quattro Stagioni” with ham, green peppers, mushroom and artichokes. There’s calamari, mussels, bruschetta and house-made bread, plus a signature cocktail, the “Middletown 75,” with herby gin, elderflower liquor, lemon and champagne.
The Main Cup
Main’s meat market and ice cream factory was a mid-century Middletown landmark. The historic sign still is, thanks to Bob and Kim Brenengen, who transformed the historic property into The Main Cup. The place is a destination restaurant with a warren of intimate dining nooks. The sunny front room is popular for parties and showers or just enjoying Main’s bourbon pecan coffee.
The Valley Jazz Jam is on the first and third Thursday evenings every month. The open session is a great excuse to grab a burger, made with fresh Hemp’s beef, and a beer from the full bar. Menu highlights include crab cakes, ahi tuna, salmon lettuce wraps, steaks and more, plus Sunday Brunch.
Valley Sports Grill
Tucked into the Glenbrook neighborhood, Valley Sports Grill is Richland Golf Club’s restaurant and bar. The vibe is relaxed and family-friendly, with no member-ship required. There are plenty of specials packed into the week. Kids eat free on Monday while Tuesday is for draft beer and pizza. Wednesday is tacos and trivia. Thursday highlights wine and pasta. Live music or DJ performances start at 7 p.m. on Fridays.
Formerly James Gang Pizzeria, Shady and Kateryna Abed took over in 2018 and recently renamed this hometown favorite “Verona.” Don’t worry, the perfectly crisped bacon cheese fries are still on the menu. Portions are still generous, too. The individual calzone is basically a pizza folded in half. Lasagna is layered in slow-simmered meat sauce and rolls are made in-house.
Pizza comes in New York or Sicilian versions. Abed’s sauce is slightly sweeter and flecked with fresh herbs. The “Orzo Delight” and lamb kebab are family recipes. Order the Knights platter, piled with marinated chicken and gyro meat over rice and grilled veggies, and Verona donates $1 to local schools.