The closing of Jack’s Bistro earlier this year felt bittersweet.
Yes, chef-owner Ted Stelzenmuller stayed in Canton to open the more casual Blair’s on Hudson, but what would happen to the charming, downright romantic space that housed a neighborhood favorite for more than a decade? Could a new concept capture the hidden-gem-in-plain-view feeling of Jack’s?
The outcome, it turns out, was better than I imagined. In place of Jack’s is the Regal Beagle, a cocktail bar created by Ryan Sparks, a former Jack’s bartender who helped launch Bookmakers Cocktail Club in Federal Hill. Like Jack’s, the Regal Beagle’s name nods to “Three’s Company” (the Regal Beagle was the roommates’ local watering hole in the show), but its concept is well suited for today’s tastes, and where Baltimore’s cocktail scene is headed.
Stelzenmuller remains a co-owner, but the Regal Beagle — which opened this past spring — is entirely a reflection of Sparks. It’s part tiki bar (hanging plants, a glowing neon sign by the entrance) and part dive (mood lighting, beers listed on the wall by one-word styles such as “porter” and “sour”), and it works. It’s a casual neighborhood spot, fittingly located on one of Canton’s less busy corners.
Where Jack’s was a restaurant first and a bar second, the Regal Beagle is the inversion. A small menu of mostly sharable items like Caribbean jerk wings and chicken sliders is meant to complement the true stars: the cocktails.
The couple of times I’ve stopped by the Regal Beagle, I walked away with an appreciation for Sparks and his small staff’s craft (it’s just him, two other bartenders and chef Brandon Stanley). They use flavors and ingredients not often seen on Baltimore menus, while maintaining a whimsical attitude that keeps the bar program from ever feeling overwrought. As at the best bars, the bartenders display serious technique without pretension.
This attitude is reflected in the menu’s construction, too, with cocktails split into categories “Classic-ish,” “Take Me to the Islands,” “Dive Bar” and “Staff Picks.” (There’s also the “Sip N Rips,” an assortment of beer-and-a-shot combinations.) With a limited staff, this gives visitors a sense of direction — tiki-style drinks are under “Islands” while those in search of a martini or old fashioned can find the Beagle’s variations under “Classic-ish.”
The bar must also be applauded for its reasonable prices: All cocktails are $12. A decade ago, this would have been on the higher end, but as Baltimore’s cocktail scene has accelerated at a breakneck pace in the past few years, $12 for a quality drink now feels quaint. Sparks said he could charge more since the bar uses high-end brands like Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. and Two James Spirits Co., but the thin staff — no servers or dishwashers — keeps prices relatively low.
During my visits, I bounced around the menu, and consistently found winning drinks.
The Bees Knees was a bright, refreshing way to start the visit, thanks to the honey-flavored Barr Hill Gin and chamomile honey cordial. An instant classic, the House Daiquiri sang due to the Doctor Bird Jamaica Rum blending sublimely with a banana liqueur. Lost Tropics was a well-balanced old fashioned that replaces whiskey for a house-made rum blend, along with a cinnamon-lime cordial and tiki bitters.
Essentially an elevated Long Island iced tea, the Zombie Killer defied logic, finding a boozy equilibrium despite the shopping list of ingredients: Papa’s Pilar rums, absinthe, falernum, Hamilton 151, grapefruit liqueur and cinnamon syrup. The result, poured over crushed ice, was dangerously smooth — and appropriately, the bar sets a limit of two per person.
The menu changes at Sparks’ whim to avoid staff boredom (though requests for past favorites are accepted as long as the ingredients are stocked). On my second visit, I was disappointed to see the Mind Eraser gone, mainly because it had been such a fun conversation starter. But it also led to further menu exploration, which here, turns out to be a good thing.
There are rotating craft beers on draft, along with cans from the area, along with nods to Sparks’ home state of Michigan (Founders, Bell’s). The standard wine options are available, too, but the reason to visit is undoubtedly the cocktails.
What I appreciated most, beyond the drinks, was that the bar exuded style. It’s a place to hang out: Bartenders are talkative without being intrusive, vinyl records provide the soundtrack (J Dilla’s incomparable “Donuts” was playing) and the dining tables in the back have been replaced with comfortable couches and chairs. The bar’s environmentally conscious approach (hay straws instead of paper or plastic, plates made of palm leaf) was easy to appreciate as well.
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Taken as a whole, it checks all the boxes and feels of-the-moment as patrons gravitate toward more relaxed concepts. Jack’s may be gone, but the Regal Beagle appears to be an even finer replacement.