Do Baltimoreans rave about Tio Pepe in downtown Baltimore because of nostalgia and fierce loyalty? Or does the fondness stem from a genuine appreciation of the sumptuous Spanish dishes, intimate dining rooms and polished wait staff?
I was curious what an outsider from another state would think of his first visit to this beloved institution. He loved it. So did I, all over again.
I remember the days when you would have to call weeks in advance to score a reservation. Even then, you’d be crowded into a tiny vestibule while you waited for a precious table in the subterranean space, knowing that a pitcher of the restaurant’s terrific, boozy sangria waited for you along with house specialties heady with garlic and rich sauces.
Recently, we were able to easily get reservations and, upon arrival, were immediately escorted to our table after an affable maître d’ whisked away our coats.
Chef Emiliano Sanz has been in Tio’s kitchen for 47 years. He took over the restaurant after the original owner, Pedro Sanz, his cousin, died in 1989. Another relative, Miguel Sanz, is a co-owner and general manager.
After almost 50 years in business, the once-distant wait staff, impressive in their pristine jackets, have mellowed. Emiliano Sanz makes the rounds, checking on diners, many of whom were familiar to him on our visit.
He didn’t know us, but he sent out a complimentary plate of hot potato puffs that enthralled us with their simplicity. We were seated at a corner table dressed in a crisp white cloth, red napkins and a vase of flowers. In our dining room, we had a view of white-stone walls minimally decorated with colorful majolica plates and lush still-life paintings. It’s easy to become smitten with the place before your dishes arrive.
A loaf of warm bread, delivered early on, came in handy for dipping into the always-impressive shrimp in garlic sauce, a menu mainstay for as long as I can remember.
The hot, tender artichoke hearts were also satisfying, glazed like cupcakes in a smooth, buttery hollandaise sauce accented with lemon. You can also get the artichokes served cold with a tangy vinaigrette.
We were happy to see that black bean soup is still on the menu. We didn’t partake this time but have good memories of the flavorful, thick broth. You can also indulge in the restaurant’s illustrious paella and suckling pig.
Our waiter didn’t waver when we asked to split a salad Tio Pepe. The kitchen divided it on two plates so we could each explore the tempting pile of romaine and Belgian endive studded with beets and tomatoes, piquant with briny olives and capers. It’s a palate pleaser before the main dishes arrive.
Seafood is well represented on the menu with items like rockfish stuffed with crabmeat and sea bass in a black butter sauce. We were drawn to a red snapper in green sauce, a centerpiece for a supporting cast of clams, mussels, white asparagus and hard-boiled egg wedges. It was a success on many levels.
But meat isn’t forgotten. Beef tournedos in sherry sauce, chicken with peppers and mushrooms, and roast duck are some of the choices. We found that our breaded veal escalope, embracing an interior of ham and Swiss cheese, was a familiar, agreeable ensemble.
We paired our entrees with an ethereal spinach side dish that crunched with toasty pine nuts and was elevated with the juice of warm golden grapes.
I always feel bad for the desserts at Tio Pepe. The sherbets in fruit shells, the custards and the tarts sound great, but they get little regard. Everyone wants the pine-nut roll — as they should.
The airy, moist cake, spiraled with a fluff of orange-colored cream and studded with delicate nuts, created a blissful ending to a memorable meal overseen by a professional brigade of servers.
Maybe we’re seduced by the originality and longevity of Tio Pepe at a time when a lot of area restaurants look and taste the same. But generations of Baltimoreans return to the stalwart for a reason.
It’s the real deal.
Rating: 4 stars
Where: 10 E. Franklin St., downtown
Contact: 410-539-4675, tiopepe.us
Open: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. or 11:30 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. or 11 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $9.75-$17.75; entrees, $21-$57.50 (for two)
Noise/TVs: There’s a hum of activity befitting a busy restaurant; no TVs.
Service: The formal service is a treat. Your table is handled by a lead waiter, server and busboy.
Parking: Street parking and a garage across from the restaurant
Special diets: Can accommodate.
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.
Handicap accessible: Yes, at the back entrance.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]