There are some indicators of personal success that are as obvious as a gleaming golden trophy, end-zone touchdown dance at the Super Bowl, or name scrawled across the side of a building in hulking brass letters. Others, though, are more subtle. The ultimate “I have arrived!” moment for a person might be making it from the couch to the finish line of a 5K charity race, finally getting up the nerve to sing Toto’s “Africa” at karaoke night, or mastering grandma’s lasagna recipe right down to the last sprinkle of parmesan. And while I wouldn’t turn down a Nobel Peace Prize, of course, the moment I’ll know that I’ve made it is when I have a sandwich named in my honor at a local restaurant.
The level of mutuality a person must have with a place before they’re considered close enough to have a sandwich named after them speaks to a symbiotic relationship between the restaurant and the patron. This doesn’t just mean being a repeat customer day in and day out — or even a good tipper. If the places where we eat are lodestars for community-building and connection over house-cured roast beef and well-seasoned French fries, then the person for whom a sandwich is named has to be someone who makes that restaurant a more generous, welcoming place simply with their presence. It’s the ultimate compliment to a person’s character, and no one know that better than the team behind Regina’s Kitchen in Mobile, Alabama, where many (many!) of the sandwiches on the menu at the legendary lunch spot are named after loved ones.
“Almost all the sandwiches on the menu are named after our family and our friends,” explains Mary Ann Florey, daughter of Regina’s founder, Regina Florey. “Some are nicknames — like the Jethro is my dad’s sandwich [roast beef, provolone, onion, lettuce, and horseradish sauce on French bread] because Jethro was his nickname in college and the Nellie [smoked turkey, ham, provolone, slaw, and barbecue sauce on French bread] is my uncle’s because their last name is Nelson — so the sandwiches have a lot of meaning because they’re named after people who’ve made an impact in our lives.”
Since opening in 2010, Regina’s foundational menu of named sandwiches, salads and soups has remained steadfast, with regulars frequently sneaking into the naming rotation on a limited-time basis through “unofficial sandwiches names” and specials. “All the regulars, all my friends, all the guys who worked at the restaurant always wanted a sandwich named after them — it’s an honor. Since we started, though, we haven’t really added any sandwiches, so that’s our set menu and those are our names. We occasionally name a special after somebody, but those core sandwiches are something people are kind of jealous of and always really curious about.”
Regina’s Kitchen is carrying on a proudly matriarchal family tradition of woman owned-and -operated businesses that make craveable, take-an-extra-home-in-your-purse sandwiches: Her mother, Mary Ann Nelson, ran Mary Ann’s Deli — which had multiple outposts from Mobile to Spring Hill throughout the 1980s and ’90s but finally landed on downtown Fairhope as the deli’s ideal location — until 2005, when she retired. “When I was born, my grandmother built her house to connect to the restaurantlaughs the younger Mary Ann. “They were literally next-door neighbors with their restaurant!”
Having a restaurant that’s so much a part of one’s DNA that it’s treated as an extension of home and a cornerstone place for life to be lived was also passed down between generations, creating an atmosphere at Regina’s where camaraderie and playfulness have wound their way through the part-time dishwashers, customers and, of course, family members who have pitched in to help make sandwiches over the years.
“Growing up, my mom [Regina] would always hire guys who were around my age to work as dishwashers and help run the sandwiches, but we called ourselves a kitchen family; we were a really tight-knit group. We’d have Christmas parties, scavenger hunts and really just the best time pranking each other and goofing around at work,” Mary Ann remembers. “We always took it seriously enough, as serious as a sandwich shop could be, in order to make sure all the customers were having a good time, too. I never had brothers, so it was like having six brothers having fun while running sandwiches and doing dishes.”
Regina’s has always been a lunch-only restaurant, leaving stretches of long Alabama afternoons and warm, buzzy evenings with the building closed to customers but perfectly positioned to play host for family and friends. While many owners would simply lock up the doors at closing and head home until it was time to start slicing onions the next morning, Regina’s Kitchen never failed to open its doors for off-menu, extracurricular activities. “During homecoming week and after costume party dances, we would host all my friends at the restaurant. We’d have big parties there — everyone would be dressed up — and my mom would cook steak and fried shrimp, and we’d have a party bus take us away. We really used that space as a gathering place outside of it just being a restaurant as a location where we could all get together. We’ve even hosted Thanksgivings there!”
The restaurant downsized in 2019, moving from a spacious dining room decked out in eclectic folk art and paintings with “30 or 40 tables” down to “four inside and four outside” at their current location close to downtown Mobile near Brookley Field “My mom calls it a food truck on land — like a grounded food truck. It’s super-small and she loves it,” says Mary Ann. “People always say, ‘Oh my gosh, you should open more locations!’ But she always says, ‘We’re too busy! We don’t want more people. We like how it is.’ That’s usually the opposite of what people do with a successful restaurant, but my mom always says, ‘There’s only one of me. It’s less fun when it’s so crazy.’ She doesn’t want to stretch herself too thin.”
Keeping crazy to a minimum is a laudable (and ambitious) goal for any business owner, but particularly one who owns a restaurant where the tables are always full thanks to throngs of loyal customers who pledge their allegiance to pretty much every dish on the menu — and not just the sandwiches. From the fruit salad with poppyseed dressing (which you can also buy by the quartto Mississippi mud cake to the rich, warming French onion soup, Regina’s Kitchen’s reputation proceeds it with locals and out-of-towners alike.
“Everyone has pretty much been to Regina’s, and people know it very well. When I introduce myself to people, sometimes I say, ‘I’m Mary Ann. My mom owns Regina’s.’ And if they’re an older crowd, I’ll say, ‘Oh, my mom owns Regina’s, and my grandmother had Mary Ann’s.’ People really know the restaurant names.”
Making sandwiches for years in her family’s restaurant means that Mary Ann has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of ways for home cooks to take their between-the-bread snack-making to a different dimension — including a few trade secrets from Regina’s Kitchen. “Most importantly, you have to use quality ingredients, and don’t be scared to put fun, random stuff on a sandwich! We love having specials that include apple and cranberry and other more outside-the-box things,” explains Mary Ann. “If you want that ‘melty cheese’ effect, we use a steamer, but you can put the sandwich in the microwave first to melt the cheese and then grill your sandwich. I always get a grilled sandwich because I love how it turns out kind of crunchy on the outside with melty cheese on the inside.”
It probably comes as no surprise, then, that Mary Ann’s namesake sandwich on the restaurant’s menu is a grilled one, with piled-up provolone, Swiss, cheddar, tomato and bacon on sourdough, which is then given a nice, crispy sear. “I originally wanted my sandwich to be the Italian sandwich, but it became my sister’s — the Cecilia — because her name sounds more Italian. As far as favorite sandwiches go, I really like the Joe Collins. It’s named after one of my dad’s best friends from college, and it has our roast beef that we make in-house along with homemade jalapeno cheddar, tomato and onion on French bread.”
Jethro, Nellie, Cecilia, Joe Collins — chatting with Mary Ann about the sandwich namesakes that have swirled around her since childhood made me get a little more serious about nailing down what exactly my namesake sandwich would be if any restaurant came calling with such a distinctive honor. It might have a thin layer of marinated artichokes atop cornmeal-battered oysters with pickled carrots; or maybe it would be made using an olive-speckled sourdough; or maybe its notoriety would come from its delivery style: the sandwich wrapped tightly, then tossed across the room to a customer like an edible football.
“The Sarah, order up!” I can hear it now…
Hey, a girl can dream.