Regi's is a place I like to recommend when someone ask me for an all-purpose, no-frills restaurants, especially when there is the challenge of accommodating difficult friends or relatives — "He only eats meat and potatoes, and she gets nervous within a yard of a salt shaker."
Constructed out of two adjoining Federal Hill townhouses, Regi's opened in 1978 as part of the original Federal Hill dining boom, and it's managed to outlast not only all of that original class — well-remembered places like Sisson's and Bandaloops — but many of the succeeding restaurants, too.
Regi's was on my list of Baltimore's 50 Best Restaurants. I put it there because of its commitment to good service, for its consistency, and for is affordability. The dinner menu offers a good selection of entrees under $20 and a list of sandwiches and entree salads. Flights of fancy are typically reserved for the specials menu. I think people feel well looked after here. A basket of good Stone Mill Bakery bread comes quickly to the table, and a server gets away with selling a mix of the house's Maryland crab and cream of crab soups, because that's how she likes it.
It can get noisy, but more so in the bar than in the dining room. Regi's sidewalk seating, covered and heated during the winter months, is one of the nicest such set-ups in town.
Veteran employees Mike Broglio and Filly Martin have been running the kitchen here since Ben Troast left a few months ago to take over the kitchen at the neighboring Porters. It's hard to measure to impact or contributions. In any case, Regi's strikes me as an owner-driven in the way those some old Hollywood movies were producer, rather than director-driven. Which makes the Alan Morstein the David O. Selznick of Regi's.
You should know that I worked here, back in the 1980s, long before Morstein came on the scene. If it took him a while to figure out what Regi's should be under his watch, he appears confidently in control now. Morstein has embraced local and seasonal ingredients; his weekly reports from the 32nd Street Market appeared regularly in the Baltimore Sun's dining blog. But the emphasis at Regi's remains squarely on comfort, familiarity and fun. An appetizer of "Tater Tots," stuffed with brie and bacon, gets a bigger promotional push than they deserve — they're really just OK. Double the bacon and halve the brie, and you'd have my attention.
I like the plating and presentation of a flash-fried calamari appetizer, served with lively and pretty marinara sauce and red-pepper aioli. The frying needs to be watched carefully. On a recent occasion, the calamari was underdone and soggy. On another, they were fine, but could still have benefited from another 15 seconds in the pan. Finesse can be trip up the kitchen, as with an iceberg wedge that was presented, oddly, on a bed of field greens. Later, the kitchen would flunk badly with a creme brulee.
Regi's works best when its working on a big, kitchen-sink scale. The Garbage Salad mixes grilled shrimp, cubes of Italian salami, artichokes, black olives, cucumbers, and tomatoes over a bed of romaine. No beauty prizes, of course, but perfect for a midweek supper at the neighborhood cafe (with enough left over for lunch the next day).
The Eastern Shore pasta performs a similar trick, with generous portions of crabmeat and shrimp tossed with grilled corn and tomatoes in a mild Old Bay-seasoned white wine sauce. The shrimp in the salad and pasta were too small and numerous, though, to merit having their tails kept on.
Also working well on a big scale was the grilled meatloaf, a bacon-wrapped mix of pork and veal, topped with crispy onion straws, and served with herb-roasted potatoes and grilled vegetables. I'm not convinced that all of the grilled seasonable vegetables I saw at Regi's could be said to "go with" what they were accompanying. But they're pretty to look at it and tasty. I don't think, for instance, they belonged with the chicken Cordon Bleu entree, a regular menu item that I found to be an uncertain offering, caught halfway between "Mad Men" nostalgia and a freshened-up Cordon Blue for the 21st century.
Much better was a recent special, a sausage-and-cornbread Southern-style chicken breast. Here the grilled vegetables, served with herbed mashed pumpkin, made more sense. A pork schnitzel would have worked much better if the meat had been pounded flatter – the breading was so tasty, as was the side of buttery spaetzle.
The truth is I've had better meals at Regi's than the two that contributed to this review. I don't think there's been a slide, but a thorough soul-cleansing might be a good idea for Regi's right now. Or maybe a one-day retreat. I got the feeling here that maybe the kitchen doesn't love everything on the menu equally.
Where: 1002 Light St., Federal Hill
Contact: 410-539-7344, http://www.regisamericanbistrom.com
Hours: Open for dinner seven days a week, lunch weekdays, and Saturday and Sunday brunch
Prices: Appetizers, $7.95-$14.50-$ Entrees, $16.25-$28.75
Food: ✭✭ 1/2
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor:✭]