The baristas and cashiers at Ground & Griddled, the breakfast stall at the new R. House food hall, are the only ones who know the names of the shop's discounted coffee-and-sandwich combos. And owner Dave Sherman wants to keep it that way — for now.
Sherman is among the local restaurateurs taking an underground route to spread the word about his eatery and connect with diners: offering menu items only a select bunch of customers know about.
It's not much of a secret that some of the country's largest restaurant chains offer items not listed on their menus — take the Chipotle "Quesarito" or the Butterbeer Frappuccino at Starbucks. But local restaurants do it, too — from newcomers like Ground & Griddled to longtime institutions like Tio Pepe. Sherman, who also owns Cafe Cito in Hampden, sees it as an unorthodox way to build buzz about a restaurant.
"I think it makes people feel really special to know something that's not listed anywhere," Sherman said.
Regularly, an egg and cheddar sandwich at Ground & Griddled costs $5.50 and a regular coffee goes for $2.75. But the Remington stall will serve a discounted breakfast sandwich-and-coffee combo for $6.50 — if customers ask for it using the correct secret name (which, of course, Sherman declined to disclose). Customers can also add meat to the sandwich if they know a second code name.
Sherman's employees are the only ones who know those names now, and he's counting on them to spread the word among friends in the restaurant industry, letting the secret slowly spread from the inside out.
"I'm going to kind of count on industry folks to support me and keep spreading the gospel," Sherman said.
Lena Tashjian, who runs the Dine Well Bmore blog and Instagram account, has encountered plenty of secret and lesser-known menus in her dining adventures. While it's not her style — she thinks all diners should have access to the same experience, regardless of whom or what they know — she said she understands the allure.
"People do like to feel sometimes the exclusivity, but I'm not sure how I feel about that," she said. "I do want to feel like everything is an option for everyone."
Some restaurants take a more inclusive approach to off-menu dining — like Tio Pepe, a Baltimore dining stalwart of nearly 50 years that frequently offers unlisted items.
Chef-owner Emilio Sanz said some nights, as much as 30 percent of the dishes he serves at his Mount Vernon restaurant aren't on the menu.
"Sometimes Saturday, you get about 80 to 100 orders off the menu," Sanz said. "We are used to that."
Off-menu seafood combinations are popular at Tio Pepe, like the lobster Emiliano — a whole split lobster topped with mushrooms, shrimp, crabmeat, hollandaise sauce and cheese. Seafood Wellington and the "Three-oh-three," a lobster and crab dish with champagne sauce, are among other favorites of regular patrons.
Many of these dishes came about as customers asked Sanz to prepare whatever he liked for them. But Sanz said he is also happy to accommodate more specific off-menu requests if he has the ingredients.
At Tersiguel's French Country Restaurant in Ellicott City, off-menu service is more pre-planned, and diners must call ahead with special requests. Chef-owner Michel Tersiguel estimates he gets about one special request a week — often for their chateaubriand for two, carved tableside.
"It's not something we can do spur-of-the-moment typically," Tersiguel said.
The chateaubriand had been on Tersiguel's menu for more than 20 years. The dish takes extra time to prepare, as do other tableside offerings that were once on the menu, so it's no longer offered regularly.
"It's been part of our tradition," Tersiguel said. "It's an item that we're known for."
The dish centers on a large cut of filet mignon — more than 16 ounces — roasted with herbs and served with vegetables and bearnaise sauce. Tersiguel said the restaurant can make it for any guest, so long as he has filet mignon in stock. (However, having reopened in late October after suffering damage from the Ellicott City flood in July, Tersiguel's is still in the process of training new staff on proper tableside techniques for dishes like chateaubriand. Tersiguel expects to begin offering those dishes again soon — though still off-menu.)
Steak Diane, a medallion steak flambeed with brandy tableside, is another dish that was once on Tersiguel's menu, and one for which he still receives many requests.
Tersiguel said the nostalgia factor keeps guests ordering those types of dishes, and that's why the restaurant continues to offer them — even if they're not regularly on the menu.
"It might've been 30 years ago they had the chateaubriand, and they got engaged here," Tersiguel said. "People really enjoy that, and it brings it back."
For Jim Oremland, Tersiguel's chateaubriand is more than a special-occasion dish. The Owings Mills resident estimates he and his wife, Marsha, have eaten it as often as half the times they have dined at the restaurant, which Jim said is one of his favorites in the Baltimore-Washington area.
"It's just a very romantic place to be, and that's a romantic dish to order," said Oremland, a regional manager for Flow Wine Group who has been dining at Tersiguel's for about 25 years. "They prepare it tableside, and they prepare it to your liking."
A meal like the chateaubriand piques curiosity among other customers when they see it being served, Tersiguel said, prompting other customers to inquire about the dish and get in on the secret.
Dine in the know
Here are a few off-menu items at Baltimore-area restaurants. Some are more of a secret than others.
Ground & Griddled's breakfast sandwich-coffee combo ($6.50): Ask for it using an unpublicized name (you'll have to find out through the grapevine) and get a discount (it's normally $8.25).
Ground & Griddled, R. House, 301 W. 29th St., Remington; 443-347-3570; r.housebaltimore.com.
Tersiguel's chateaubriand ($84 for two people): Call ahead and ask for the chateaubriand, served tableside.
Tersiguel's French Country Restaurant, 8293 Main St., Ellicott City; 410-465-4004; tersiguels.com.
Tio Pepe's lobster Emiliano ($48.75): Ask for the whole lobster dish by name.
Tio Pepe, 10 E. Franklin St., Baltimore. 410-539-4675; tiopepebaltimore.com.
Grilled Cheese & Co.'s "underground menu" ($7.99-$9.99): Order off Grilled Cheese & Co.'s secret menu, with sandwich options like the chicken Chesapeake, roast beef and Swiss, and bruschetta.
Multiple locations in Federal Hill, Catonsville, Eldersburg and Gambrills; ilovegrilledcheese.com.
Connie's Chicken & Waffles secret waffles ($10): Unlisted flavors include birthday cake, cinnamon apple, and bananas and cream.
Connie's Chicken & Waffles, Lexington Market, 400 W. Lexington St., Baltimore; 410-528-0555; connieschickenandwaffles.com.
Heavy Seas Alehouse "Seacret Menu": Large items are listed in the back of the restaurant's regular menu, but they aren't listed online.
Heavy Seas Alehouse, 1300 Bank St., Baltimore; 410-522-0850; heavyseasalehouse.com.