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EntertainmentFood & Dining

Decades of selfless service

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Francisco "Paco" Lobo wears out tuxedos the way marathoners do running shoes.

The longtime Tio Pepe maitre d' keeps three tuxes in his wardrobe at any given time, and every year, at least two succumb to the rigors of dry cleaning.

Lobo himself has held up far better.

At 74, he is trim and lively and able to charm hungry, impatient crowds for 10 and 12 hours a day, five days a week, in the elegant Mount Vernon basement restaurant. His hair has gone silver, but the size of his tux jacket, 44 regular, hasn't budged since he started at Tio's more than 40 years ago — no small feat given the occupational hazards of a place that dishes up off-the-menu, twice-fried potatoes known as pommes soufflés before diners even have a chance to order.

But just because Lobo, regarded as the restaurant's Cal Ripken because he has hardly taken a sick day in all those years, can keep going doesn't mean he must. Tio's Iron Man has finally had his fill.

"It's time for me to go because life is that way, but I'm going to miss it," Lobo said two Sundays ago, his last day as full-time maitre d'.

"It's been a great joy and a great ride, really. I love coming to work. You reach 74 and — anyhow," he said, cutting himself off with a wave of his hand. "I'm getting too romantic."

Lobo is not completely hanging up his tuxes. The restaurants' owners, Miguel and Emilio Sanz, have asked him to work one or two days a week. After taking last week off, he expected to be back part-time this week.

But even a semi-retirement represents big change for a restaurant that has seen little of it since its opening in 1968. Tio's has managed to ignore the comings and goings of culinary fashion as improbably as ice cream stands up to broiling in its Baked Alaska, offering a white-tablecloth Continental dining experience that has remained unchanged but for the prices.

Lobo has been the face of this fine-dining Brigadoon. So for Tio Pepe regulars, as accustomed to seeing "Paco" at the front of the house as they are paella on the menu, this feels like the passing of an era — one that ended long ago in the rest of Baltimore.

"He's of the old European manner," said Joanne Linder of Towson, whom Lobo always seated at Table 5, just as he did when she dined with her husband, Rudolph, a steel executive who died in 2003. "Very gracious, always dressed in a tuxedo and tie — it makes a big impression on you when you go into the restaurant because everything is so casual now. I like to see somebody dressed like that. Not everything is lost."

Jim Frey, a real-estate investor from Mount Airy, became so fond of Tio's in general and Lobo in particular that he's traveled to Spain many times to visit the maitre d's family.

"He's a monument," said Frey, who praises the menu for similarly immutable qualities. "What I ate there 40 years ago still tastes the same today."

If time has largely stood still at Tio's, Lobo most certainly has not.

Even on his official "last" day, he dashed around the 200-seat dining room before the restaurant opened, straightening red-cushioned bamboo chairs that had been moved out of place by the vacuuming crew.

"I help," he said, "but I'm not supposed to do this. I have to make sure everything is done well."

His family is ready for Lobo to take it easy. Lobo has a wife — their 1971 wedding reception was at the restaurant — and two grown children. His son, Rick, was a busboy at Tio's as a teen. His daughter, Carolina, worked the front of the house with dad. The jobs gave Lobo's children insight how stressful the job could be.

"It puts acid in the stomach," Rick Lobo said. "It's like having 10 deadlines."

They also witnessed how skillfully their father could disarm guests with grace, humor and the lilting accent of his native Segovia.

Carolina recalled a one-liner he'd use on people waiting in the bar on busy night: "You've got to indulge me, I just started yesterday; I don't know what I'm doing."

Rick noted another line Lobo would deliver as diners headed out after their meals: "Say, how is the food? They tell me it's really good here."

Rick also remembered "the countless Christmas Eves he shows up just in time for midnight Mass, the missed birthdays." The family took those absences in stride, knowing they were hard on Lobo, too. But there were some raw feeling four or five years ago, when health issues cropped up.

"My dad, being on his feet his whole life, has bad varicose veins," Rick said. He planned to have them operated on, and in the course of a pre-operative physical, doctors discovered a six-pound tumor in his chest. Lobo used to smoke — "Every Spanish guy in the world smokes," Rick said — but he quit 35 or 40 years ago.

"All those years of second-hand smoke, that was the one time we said, 'Screw the restaurant business and all that smoke,'" Rick said.

Doctors successfully removed the tumor, which proved to be benign. Two days later, Lobo was back on the job. "Two days [off] for a 6-, 8-inch incision," Rick Lobo marveled.

During one of last winter's blizzards, Lobo had Rick drive him to the restaurant in his four-wheel-drive vehicle. He even asked his son, a 36-year-old insurance executive, to reprise his role as busboy if other staffers couldn't make it in.

"My dad could have said, 'Screw it.' We passed 17 car accidents — I was snapping them on my BlackBerry — on 83," said Rick Lobo. "He was that committed to a business that's not even his own. Who's that committed to their work?"

Many patrons assume Lobo has an ownership stake in the restaurant. He does not.

"It's just my heart and soul and my life, but I don't have ownership," Lobo said. "It's just a job."

Lobo found what is very clearly not just a job but his calling after helping out as a kid in his parents' small restaurant in Segovia, apprenticing at age 18 with an uncle who managed Madrid's Palace Hotel, and working and learning English in England in his 20s. The 1964 World's Fair in New York provided his ticket to the United States.

He worked as a waiter in the Spanish Pavilion. When the fair was over, he and a group of Spanish waiters found restaurant jobs in New York and Baltimore. A pair of his World's Fair colleagues opened Tio Pepe in November 1968, and Lobo arrived as a waiter the following April. He became maitre d' four or five years later.

"I was not promoted," Lobo deadpanned. "I was dressed in black."

While the maitre d' and Tio's itself have changed little over the years, the surrounding restaurant landscape has undergone a revolution. Around the corner from Tio's are sushi, Thai, Afghan and Indian restaurants. Tio's has felt the competition and, more recently, the effects of the recession. Business has slowed during the week, though on weekends the crowds are still thick enough to challenge any maitre d'.

"Anyone who for 40 years can manage the Saturday nights at Tio Pepe — even today it's a mob scene," said Carl Tuerk, a Baltimore attorney and Tio's patron. "To assuage people who have to wait longer than they think they should have to wait, that's a huge talent. I know at times it takes a toll on him."

Tuerk is among the Tio's faithful who appreciate the restaurant for never artfully drizzling sauces on plates or creating towers of food or serving tiramisu.

"It's not El Bulli, where they're doing fancy, exotic things," said Tuerk, referring to chef Ferran Adria's famed molecular gastronomy restaurant in Spain. "They are doing basic Spanish cuisine the old-fashioned way."

As much as Tio's fare comes across as high-end comfort food today, it was something new and exotic when it opened. It was sophisticated ethnic cuisine in an era when "Chinese was egg foo young and chicken chow mein," said Jack Sturgill, a longtime Tio's diner.

"Tio Pepe was one of the leaders. The salad was not iceberg," Sturgill said. "I remember [Baltimore Sun restaurant critic] John Dorsey made a big deal about that it was mixed greens."

Lobo has been an important part of the Tio's experience for Sturgill, a 61-year-old attorney from Glen Arm, since the days when he was a law school student saving up spare change to split paella with his wife. (The dish, which serves two, was $11 when Dorsey reviewed the restaurant in 1971. It fetches $52.50 today.)

"We saved up dimes. When we got to a certain point, we went down to Tio Pepe and got a treat," Sturgill said. "All we could afford to get was the paella."

When the Sturgills had the means to branch out from that entree later in life, they always consulted Lobo on the food and wine, though by then he'd moved up to maitre d'.

"He's very, very knowledgeable not only about the menu but the wines," Sturgill said. "He was always sort of the stalwart there. He knew the table that you liked and the waiters you preferred. He made the dining experience very special."

• More information: Tio Pepe in Mount Vernon

laura.vozzella@baltsun.com


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