I think Sobo has dependably good food and interesting atmosphere/service. Plus they always have a Brewer's Art on tap, so my husband is happy.
Mother's has extremely dependable burgers. I really never get anything else, but for me a dependably good burger is major feat. Always good service. Always a little grimy feeling :)
Both restaurants keep it simple. Sobo has a changing menu, but it's always small. I don't think Mother's has changed their menu in at least the 6 years I've lived downtown (I do sometimes look at it, as if I'm going to order something else).
Kali's Mezze (Fell's Point) does a fabulous job with Mediteranean tapas at a reasonable price. Great for groups.
The Wine Market (Federal Hill) and Ixia (Mt. Vernon) offer a dining experience that gives Baltimore a chance at becoming a real culinary city.
If you don't mind chain restaurants, there are two that can be the meat-lover's paradise--- Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and Fogo de Chao. Fogo de Chao is a great place to go with a large group of serious, ravenous carnivores.
For more local flavor, Peter's Inn (just north of Fell's Point) is an upscale tavern with the feel of a neighborhood watering hole. Jack's Bistro (Canton, east of O'Donnell Square) offers a sophisticated menu with the hipster atmosphere of Park Slope, Brooklyn.
For inexpensive, casual and authentic ethnic food, in this case Nepalese, Kumari (Mt. Vernon/N. Charles St.) is hands-down the best place for dinner. The chef and waitstaff are all Nepalese and the restaurant has a devoted clientele.
I haven't come across any good Chinese, Japanese, or Korean restaurants yet. Anyone know of any?
Upscale/Pricey: Charleston has always been good, as well as The Prime Rib and Fleming's (which I freqeunt quite a bit). For Italian, I love La Scala and have never been let down.
Casual: Kawasaki Cafe in Fell's for sushi is incredible. I like Matsuri too, but prefer Kawasaki Cafe. Jack's Bistro is quite good and have never had any problems. Thai Arroy is the best Thai food around and is consistently good and prices are great. For Mexican, try Holy Frijoles in Hampden. Always a crowd favorite.
Sidenote: I've had a few less than memorable experiences at Pazo's, that's not to say we don't eat there from time to time still. The place has great potential to be excellent, but there always seems to be something that its lacking.
My Baltimore-based food/wine blog: http://www.foodandwineblog.com
Brewer's Art. I've been disappointed with my meals in the dining room, but their bar menu has never disappointed me. I think that they manage it because they KISS w/out making it so simple that the food is boring.
The Bicycle? I've only eaten there a couple of times, but both times I was impressed by the level of service and the waiters knowledge of the menu as well as the food.
Paper Moon Diner. As an example of a restaurant that never disappoints because expectations are never high.
The Foreman/Wolf restaurants are probably the most dependable restaurants in Baltimore. Not only do they make excellant food, but a big emphasis is placed on the guest's experiance. They will go out of their way to ensure you have a memorable dinner. If you don't like something, they will replace it without question or attitude. Those who are intimidated by upscale eateries are made to feel at home.
Also, Matsuri never fails to turn out amazing sushi. I credit that to their commitment to quality fish and preperaton. I took a sushi making class there which was run by their head sushi chef, and you could tell both he and the always-friendly-staff were excited to be sharing their skills with the students. One of the more enjoyable food experiances I've had.
I think dependabilty comes from a combination of experiance and also the desire to be the best.
re: mobtown hound
Completely disagree with this as Pazo has disappointed on a number of levels on multiple occasions; Petit Louis is pretty expensive for what you get; and there have been a lot of posts about disappointments at Charleston (which, I might add, is the best restaurant in Baltimore but given the prices . . . .).
Also, it's kind of a weird question because if a restaurant doesn't aspire to much, it will never disappoint. For example, the hallmark of chains is their consistency, and many Irish pubs (also for example) do exactly the same thing night after night.
One other point: part of not being disappointed has to do with the costs of the food (I'll put up with minor things if it's a good deal).
Given all this, the restaurants where I bring guests (particularly out-of-town guests knowing that they'll only have one or two meals in town) knowing that they'll get an interesting, well-cooked, good value meal are Jack's Bistro, Birches, and La Cazuela.
My guess is that Tabrizi's will end up on this list if they make it.
re: mobtown hound
Thank you, Mobtown, for this well thought out post. I agree that management, and a commitment to customers, is a large part of what creates dependability, and that both Pazo and Petit Louis have it. But in spite of its good service, Charleston is inconsistent in cooking quality, even within the same meal, leading me to think that if Cindy Wolfe is not at home, there is no firm guidance in their kitchen.