For years, Tio Pepe was my family's special-occasion restaurant. This was the mid-1970s, when the Franklin Street restaurant, which opened in 1968, was already established as a Baltimore classic. Even then, Tio Pepe seemed as if it had been around forever, and Baltimore spoke of it in absolute terms.
Some of those absolutes no longer apply. Tio Pepe is no longer the most expensive meal in town. It's certainly no bargain — figure about $75 a person — but other restaurants that have much less to offer have caught up. A Tio Pepe dinner, though, still feels like a luxury item, bathed in drawn butter, covered with hollandaise, flavored with brandy, and layered with cream and rolled in pine nuts.
Generations of chefs have come and gone at Tio Pepe — in the 1980s, every other restaurant in Baltimore was said to be operated by a former Tio Pepe chef. But I could detect no shortcuts, watering down or even portion shrinkage. Newcomers to Tio Pepe cuisine can be baffled by it. But the cuisine was, from the very start, puzzling. The specialty is a kind of Spanish cuisine with little international presence, then or now. Some diners, expecting spiciness and flair, doubt it's Spanish at all.
Take, for example, the Filete de Lenguado Alcazar, a fillet of sole, sauteed with bananas and topped with hollandaise sauce. I love it, then and now, but not everyone at my table did. They were looking for spice and found none. The dish, though, was intensely subtle. The sauce's acidity helped tone down the sweetness, and every juicy forkful of fruity fish and sauce was worth lingering over.
Other dishes spoke, very persuasively, for themselves. The marinated shrimp sounded its buttery wake-up call. My companions woke up, reached for the bread basket and got to work mopping up the garlic sauce. Black bean soup, touched with sherry, impressed with its velvety texture and precise spicing.
Only a few things failed to ignite interest. The appetizer of mushrooms on toast was sodden and too filling. One of the menu's most expensive and popular items — the chicken and lobster tail in a sherry-infused sauce — doesn't hold a diner's attention for long. One bite is like the next, and the dish turned monotonous. The same sauce worked much better in a shellfish medley, where there was more variety of texture and flavor.
Tournedos Tio Pepe, another of the restaurant's favorite dishes, seemed overdressed, something I'd never thought before. The beef was robust, lovely and tender, but the mushroom sherry sauce bordered on the fussy.
I don't think the Tournedos preparation has changed, though — I think tastes have. We like our steak simple now. Dining habits have changed, too. No longer does Tio Pepe insist on formal attire for gentlemen. "Business casual is fine, just not shorts on gentlemen," we were told when making reservations. That's another change. You can think about making prime-time Thursday night reservations the day before, or not at all. And when we showed up on Thursday night, there were men in shorts anyway.
Tio Pepe was doing good but not blockbuster business when we arrived. It's summertime, though. Even in the old days, August might have been your best bet for a weekend table.
I brought Tio Pepe newcomers with me, and I'm sorry that they missed out on the essential Tio Pepe experience of walking through the front doors into the scrum of patrons clamoring for the attention of the maitre d'. And then of walking, at last, though the crowded grotto-like dining rooms to your table — who would you see here tonight? Nowadays, you walk in and you're seated. And that's that.
The below-ground rooms are cool and intimate. They're in great shape, too, with no sign of wear and tear. Over the years, some of the frou-frou that cluttered the stucco walls has been removed to refreshing effect. The tables are set formally and handsomely, with crisp white tablecloths and scarlet red napkins folded precisely on good china. Tio Pepe, like the best restaurants, always looks like it's ready for company.
Under my red napkin, a stubborn grain of rice was sticking to my plate. A busboy noticed it as I did and whisked the plate away. If the setting has always been part of the Tio Pepe mystique, so have the staff, who are still wearing red, blue and gold jackets, depending on whether they're headwaiters, waiters or busboys.
The headwaiter for our table was vintage Tio Pepe; I was glad my friends got to experience it. There's a difference between someone being unfriendly (a hostile stance) and not friendly (a neutral position, the specialty at Tio Pepe). This is what service looks like, we decided, when the staff cares nothing about you personally but cares deeply about serving you a wonderful meal.
Throughout that meal will be the sangria, served in its familiar majolica pitcher, and at the end, a Brazo de Gitano (literally, "gypsy's arm"), a rolled sponge cake filled with Catalan cream and dressed with chocolate, almonds or, famously, pine nuts. Generations of Baltimoreans have dreamed of the pine nut roll in the nights and days leading up to a dinner at Tio Pepe. But why wait? Go have one today.
Restaurante Tio Pepe
Where: 10 E. Franklin St., Mount Vernon
Hours: Open daily for dinner and Monday through Friday for lunch
Prices: Appetizers, $6.75-$16.25 entrees, $20.25-$38
Food: 3 stars
Service: 3 stars
Atmosphere: 3 1/2 stars
[Key: Outstanding: 4; Good: 3; Fair or Uneven: 2; Poor: 1]