A new downtown restaurant is serviceable but unimpressive
At a booth in the dining room of Frank & Nic's West End Grille, a man and a woman sit side by side, sipping Cokes, gazing with purpose at the laptop between them. Across the room, two fellas in name tags and khakis talk studies and article citations in between bites of burgers. A couple of gal pals, casual in sweaters and jeans, linger over a bottle of Chardonnay, while in the neighboring bar, folks in business suits watch ESPN to a soundtrack of Coldplay.
It's a noisy scene that could take place anywhere, or at least in any place where tourists, conventioneers, and happy hour imbibers converge, and Frank & Nic's is definitely that place. Above anything else--more than wide screen televisions, bars, or grub--Frank & Nic's is about location, and its location, in the bottom of the new Zenith building, within walking distance of the convention center, Camden Yards, and the Hilton, makes it a prime spot for folks looking for something familiar.
Frank & Nic's is not a chain, though it gives the impression of one--from the corporate couture of the dining room, all modern neutrals and wood; to the unattractive laminated menus that erroneously include Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, and Blue Moon as "imports;" to the two large bar areas that flank the dining room; to the food, which is not particularly distinctive. I'm not sure any of this will matter once baseball season starts, and folks begin to drop in before or after the game for a casual bite to eat. Because even though the restaurant offers more formal entrées such as steaks, pork chops, and crab cakes (our server boasted about the lamb chops, even offering to refund our money if we ordered them and didn't like them), what folks are eating, at least on the moderately busy Thursday night we were there, were sandwiches. "You can't go wrong with a cheeseburger," the man behind us commented as I peeked over my shoulder at his meal, further emphasizing that you go to Frank & Nic's because you're already downtown, and parked, and need somewhere to eat, rather than vice versa. It's a convenience, not a destination.
That said, the folks at Frank & Nic's are trying very hard to please customers. A manager opens the front door of the restaurant before you can even reach for the handle. A hostess offers a genuinely warm greeting. A server positively beams as he talks about the restaurant's dedication to fresh food made to order. This is all very good, even if the food is not. While nothing we ate was objectionable, nothing wowed either, and almost everything was surprisingly bland. A bowl of curried mussels ($10) were well-sized and grit-free, but tasted only faintly of curry, while jerk chicken skewers ($8), generous wedges of thigh and breast, were coated in a sauce that lacked spice and overwhelmed with sweetness. A chopped salad ($7) looked pretty served in a white square-shaped bowl, but it, too, was sweet, the result of too much sugar (or Miracle Whip?) in the dressing.
We opted to follow the crowd and ordered a cheeseburger and the steak sandwich (though a BLT with the addition of mozzarella and a catch of the day sandwich also sounded promising). The hefty burger ($8), cleverly dressed Big Mac-style with shredded lettuce, cheese, pickles, onion, etc., was cooked medium-rare to order, but the beef lacked any richness or real meaty flavor. With so many places around town doing outstanding burgers, this one was a disappointment. The steak sandwich ($13), an amalgam of shaved beef, onions, and cheese, with a very mild horseradish sauce, fared better, though the kitchen could cut back on the salt. Both sandwiches were served with excellent thin-cut fries still bearing traces of skin.
Frank & Nic's portions are generous, and I can't imagine folks having much room for crème brûlée afterward. But if you do want dessert I would recommend skipping the Snickers sundae ($7), a concoction of vapidly yellow-orange French vanilla ice cream, peanuts, and minimal caramel sauce topped off with a mini, deep-fried Snickers bar, so tepid that its batter sloughed off when I tried to bite into it.
Web sites are prone to hyperbole, and Frank & Nic's is no different when it claims the restaurant to be "the most dynamic dining and entertainment experience to enthrall Charm City in years." No matter. During baseball season, the only concerns will be whether there's a free table and that the beer is cold enough.