Another great meal at Tio Pepe's
Virtually all of Baltimore's great restaurants from the 50s and 60s are now closed with the exception of the one-time champ of them all – Tio Pepe's. I'm sure for many of you, the style of the food at Tio Pepe's seems ridiculously outdated as does the serving style. But in eating there tonight, I was reminded that for food quality and excellence, it is still a rare dining experience.
The trick to appreciating Tio's is to realize that the ingredients – the meat, fish and vegetables – are of amazing and consistently high quality. It is one of the best, if not the best place in Baltimore for seafood. Tonight I ate the Red Snapper in Green Sauce with mussels, clams, asparagus and hard boiled egg. The fish was incredible as was the preparation. The beef and veal are just as good. In the past, I've had the Sturgeon in Black Butter – an unusual and fantastic preparation. Of course, it's hard to order anything else if the Suckling Pig is on the menu.
The desserts are scrumptious. Tonight, I ordered the warm chocolate souffle. This item, which is not on the menu, needs to be requested when you order your dinner since it is prepared to order. It comes to the table hot in its own souffle mold. At the table, the waiter pokes a hole in the middle of the steaming souffle and pours in cold chocolate sauce. He then hides the damage with a large dollop of whipped cream. You might find a trendier dessert, but I can't imagine finding one that makes you happier.
Generally, unless I am famished, I don't order from the regular list of appetizers. All are incredibly rich and buttery, even most of the soups. Instead I usually order one of the side vegetables to start – the artichoke hearts with Serrano ham or the mushrooms. I find this gives you a better shot at getting through the meal without total overload. If I think I can handle the richness, I do sometimes go for the snails in garlic butter. It is a classic and delicious preparation that never goes out of style.
(Generally you want to be cognizant of ordering too many dishes with rich sauces. Like restaurants in its day, Tio's heavily sauces its food. There are some dishes, like a Rockfish with Crabmeat and Champagne Sauce that I can just tell from the menu will be too heavy to consume comfortably.)
As many wine geeks know, Tio's has an amazing but often overlooked collection of older Spanish wines which it rotates onto its wine list. (The restaurant is in a basement and was purchasing Spanish wines back into the 60s.) Tonight they had on the menu Marquez de Riscal Riserva Rioja's from 1969 and 1970 for $69 and $70. Where else can you purchase a wine older than your date at such a reasonable cost!
A few things have changed about Tio's in ways that are not so good. This used to be the hottest ticket in Baltimore and a jacket and tie was strictly required for the men. I'm afraid that the dress of many patrons has gotten ridiculously and in my view, inappropriately casual. Tonight most of the men seemed to be wearing Dockers, and one family showed up with three teenage boys all in jeans. For me, the quality of the food deserves better. This is a place where the men should be wearing suits or at least fancy evening attire and the women cocktail dresses.
Finally, as prices have steadily risen elsewhere, Tio's has gone from being one of the most expensive restaurants in town to a veritable bargain. A full meal, excluding wine comes to approximately $50. Given the quality, that's hard to beat. If you haven't tried Tio's recently and approach it with the right attitude, you may find it to be a wonderful dining experience. It is a bit of a time warp, but truthfully, it looks like those folks back in the 60s were having a hell of a lot of fun for dinner.
One of the last "old-time" restaurants in Cham City. The Chesapeake is gone, Danny's is but a memory, Haussner's, Miller Bros....what can I say?
As far as Tio Pepe's goes you either love it or hate it. The food is great, yes. But I have had nothing but aggravation trying to be seated (even with reservations) especially on weekends, in the past several years. As far as ambiance, the only word I can think of is "claustrophobic". Sorry, but waiting 90 minutes to be seated is not my idea of a fine dining experience.
Finally in my 30s after having lived in Baltimore for most of my life, I finally made it to Tio Pepe. I found the cavernous atmosphere endearing and reminiscent of Martick's on Mulberry St. in it's quirkiness. My friend wore a jacket (as he heard was "recommended"- but was certainly not necessary). I strongly believe that the days of dress code in most restaurants is very silly. (Salt restaurant for example has been labeled 4 star & is expensive, yet the waiters there wear jeans.) I was initially put off that our menus had wine & food stains on every page, & our wine & water glasses bordered being sent back to be rewashed. We started with 4 appetizers. The mussels in verde sauce were undercooked and difficult to remove from the shell. The sauce craved flavor & we left some uneaten with no desire to take them to go. The shrimp & garlic lacked garlic & the shrimp were lost in a pool of oil. My friend enjoyed the mushrooms on toast, but I could not get past the overpowering nutmeg (although I was intrigued, & kept sampling it). The snails were tasty- a bit overcooked, but buttery, rich, & my favorite of the appetizers. I had the shad & shad roe. The fish was cooked beautifully. I loved it, but again, the sauces were bland, & did not do the dish justice. My friend had the suckling pig. IT WAS AMAZING! One of the most delicious entrees I have ever tasted in any restaurant. Crispy skin on top, tender & juicy, & HUGE for under $30. We considered the wine list & the meal affordable & a good experience overall... (OK- largely because of the suckling pig!). We took the rest of the suckling pig home & have fought over the leftovers for the rest of the evening! We have already decided to go back next week JUST for the suckling pig. I just heard that Chingale also serves suckling pig, but I fear it wont compare.
It's about time Tio Pepe's got the recognition here it so richly deserves. Restaurants come and go in Baltimore. but Tio's ( along with The Prime Rib) have stood the test of time. I've been going there for over 30 years....NEVER had a bad meal.....hope it's there for another 30 years!
I personally love Pepe's, Yeah the food is kinda simple but the execution is flawless. I mean I love everything from the shrimp in garlic butter, I'm sure in 20 yrs my doctor will hate me for having it everytime I go there. I love the private rooms and all, and the fact that you could walk by one of Baltimore's best restaurant without even knowing it!!