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A good bet for a business lunch, Sam Miller's Warehouse goes overboard for dinner.

Business Class

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Sam Miller's Warehouse in Shockoe Slip exudes the welcoming comfort of an old shoe. The worn varnished dark wood, dim lighting, sturdy bar and tuxedoed waiters all combine to suggest tradition, stability and the certain knowledge that you are about to have a good meal. And if you're there for lunch, you'll be just fine. But show up for dinner, and you could wind up paying an awful lot for an ordinary meal — at least that was our experience on recent visits.

At heart, Sam Miller's Warehouse is a neighborhood surf-and-turf grill dressed up to cater to the local business-lunch crowd and the largely out-of-town business dinner crowd. Whether for business or pleasure, the better bargain is lunch. And if you're new to Sam's, get the crab cakes. Whether you choose the Sir Francis Drake crab cake sandwich ($8.35) or the platter ($10.85), Sam Miller's has possibly the best crab cakes in Richmond: loaded with plump meat, very light on filler and perfectly seasoned. Other lunch items include standard sandwich fare like the knockwurst and pastrami sailor ($6.95) and the club sandwich ($5.35), and seafood offerings such as fried oysters ($7.95) and even a whole Maine lobster pulled from the tank by the bar (priced daily).

While it is a little on the high end for daily lunch visits, when the company's buying, it's a fine place to take a client or to join a colleague for an occasional splurge. Many of the same items reappear on the dinner menu, however, and here the price tags take a leap of faith. For example, the filet mignon which weighed in at 6 ounces at lunchtime, and cost $11.95, gains 2 more ounces and costs $19.95 for dinner. The scallops go from less than $10 to $16.95. And that lunchtime crab cake platter climbs to $21.95 from $10.85.

We shared the crab cake sampler ($8.25) — two golf ball-sized crab cakes presented on toast points with a lemon wedge — and followed that with a cup of New England clam chowder ($3.50) and a cup of crab soup ($4.35). The clam chowder was very good, the clams soft and plump and not chewy, but the crab soup had been mishandled in the kitchen and tasted singed. On a subsequent visit, I found the crab soup excellent, creamy and mellow flavored. I could have excused the first incident as an anomaly, but since this was represented as "what we're known for," I hope the kitchen will take note and exercise greater care with their reputation-setting items.

My companion's dinner that night, Seafood Provencal ($20.95), was plentiful, the vegetable medley cooked just right, but the entrée itself was decidedly ordinary. The seafood was fresh in taste and texture, but all the flavors blended together into a monochromatic blur. And while my Kansas City Sirloin steak was done to order — rare — and was nicely peppered with a baked potato and a vegetable medley on the side, it lacked any distinct character. I left a little disappointed that I hadn't selected something seemingly more ordinary, like Chicken Oscar ($16.95 and topped with crabmeat), or crab-stuffed jumbo shrimp ($21.25). In all, our total tab, $108, seemed high given our state of contentment compared to other similarly costly meals we've had.

Part of that feeling, we suspect, also was due to our experience of the reality of the atmosphere. Once inside Sam Miller's, both in the bar area and in the dining room proper, the well-worn and welcoming décor on closer inspection was actually just worn out and tired: dirty mirrors, dated fixtures and hanging plants cast Sam's in an early '80s fern-bar time warp that could stand some spit and polish.

The service at Sam's was remarkable and the wait staff deserves recognition for competence, honesty and integrity. Specifically, when I asked if the fish of the day, which was bluefish (one of my personal favorites) was fresh or had been previously frozen, instead of giving me a line, our waiter explained that while he would be surprised if it wasn't fresh, bluefish also had been served the day before. I offer this not as an indictment of the quality of the food at Sam's, which is good, but as a shining moment for the integrity of the staff.

Yet with 25 years in business — 17 at its current location — there very well may be more to Sam Miller's than met our eyes and stomachs. And if there is, we hope the excellent wait staff will help us find it on the lunch

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