So many taverns/sports bars serve the same popular menu within the same quality range — from palatable in a pinch to decent comfort food — that you can describe the kitchen as "good enough" and go on to the other attractions.
Drink specials and big-screen TVs draw the target clientele. If the chow is presentable and familiar, that's enough. Frank & Nic's West End Grille serves wings and all the popular tavern fare. But it isn't your typical sports bar.
Billed as a "casual restaurant and sports bar" and located more or less in the shadow of Camden Yards on Pratt and Paca streets, the vibe suggests it intends to take the flip-flops out of casual and the excess out of sports bar. Not only could you take your mom here, you could take a client.
12:23 Frank & Nic's opens to a barroom packed with circular tables. On one hand, the room looks party-ready, set up for home team revelers who don't mind rubbing elbows with like-minded fans. On the other hand, as we had to let Frank & Nic's menu remind us, this is a sports bar. Missing are the tell-tale framed jerseys, walls papered with flat-screen TVs and posters of buxom beer babes. It looks like a fun space without trying.
Off to the right is the dining room. More squared and straight-lined than the barroom, it welcomes the business-casual set; a tie would not be out of place here.
12:42 We ordered a blackened crab cake sandwich ($14) off an appealing specials menu, and from the main menu, the prosciutto burger ($12.95). It seemed like a neat tweak of the standard bacon-cheeseburger. Both sandwiches are de rigueur in bars and practically everywhere else in Maryland. But in a sports bar, prosciutto might be too fussy for a cheeseburger. And why dare to blacken a perfectly good crab cake, unless it isn't perfectly good?
Our server was congenial, bright and maybe a little green — but attentive and engaging. Her performance added to the place's smart-sports-bar vibe.
12:55 A second server brought our plates, and our main server checked in shortly afterward to make sure we had everything we needed (we did).
If you like big chunks of crab in your cake, this version might disappoint you at first bite. The mix looked blended close to puree consistency. But this blackened rendition, a buck less than the crab cake on the regular menu, caught and kept the Cajun flavors. The accompanying squeeze of chipotle mayo never overwhelmed the crab meat, and at 8 or so ounces, it's as generous as it is tasty.
The prosciutto on our burger was a welcome alternative to bacon. A pair of red tomatoes, battered and deep-fried to a dark brown, as well as the same chipotle mayo used on the crab cake, brought an exceptional balance of drippy succulence and crispy textures.
The brioche rolls on both sandwiches were excellent; the fries fine but ordinary when compared to the sandwiches.
1:15 This was one of those first-time visits in which appreciation for the place grew throughout the meal. Conversation returned to discoveries of subtle accents that made each sandwich a superior example of its class.
1:18 Frank & Nic's is a treat. Even though a number of regular menu items come in at under $10, you can spend more here than you might want at a regular lunch spot. On the other hand, you get as at least as good as you pay. This is a serious kitchen thinly disguised as a sports bar.
Frank & Nic's West End Grille
Where: 511 W. Pratt St., Baltimore (the entrance is around the corner on Paca Street)
Contact: 410-685-6800, frankandnics.com
Lunch hours: 11:30 p.m.-2 a.m. daily; kitchen closes between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m.
Lunch entrées: $7.95-$14.95
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]
Dining time: 55 minutes