For 20 years, Baltimoreans have entertained a love affair with Peter’s Inn, the cozy rowhouse with the bright red door that still doesn’t take reservations. The affection is fitting, given the fact that the restaurant is fueled on romance, not just heat from the kitchen.
Owners Bud and Karin Tiffany bought the place the day after they got married in September 1995. They’ve been hands-on operators ever since — Karin as the chef, and Bud, who also cooks, as the “execution guy.”
“We hadn’t gone out in search of a business,” said Bud Tiffany. “It fell into place.”
He credits Peter’s longevity to “constantly trying to challenge ourselves and entertain ourselves.” It helps that the menu changes weekly, he said.
Diners can count on beef and seafood options among the dozen or so dishes etched on the restaurant chalkboard. But regulars know to start a meal with the thick, herby garlic bread and salad that are not on the menu. You should, too.
There is a ritual at the restaurant, named after former owner Peter Denzer, who founded the restaurant in 1977 and died in 2014. Insiders know they need to get to Peter’s when it opens at 5:30 p.m. to assure a spot for dinner, which starts service at 6:30 p.m. It doesn’t take long for the eclectic, 37-seat space to fill up.
The friendly servers are as charming as the quirky, white-tableclothed restaurant, whose walls are packed with photos, knickknacks and even a trophy swordfish snared for eternity in tiny lights. Waitresses wear old-fashioned aprons a la the Betty Crocker era. Waiters are bohemian casual in plaid or plain colored shirts.
It’s not unusual to hear Baltimore patois like “youse” among the staff, a reminder of its beginnings. Old timers remember its biker bar days in the 1980s, when Denzer and Bud Tiffany rode motorcycles and Karin Tiffany, who learned to cook in the U.S. Coast Guard, was beginning her days in the kitchen.
As owners, the Tiffanys have spawned a new era.
“It slowly got to be more and more less of a bar and more of a restaurant,” Bud Tiffany said. “The menu has gotten more complicated and nuanced.”
That doesn’t mean diners can’t still get a Guinness, martini or glass of chardonnay at the bar. On Wednesdays, select bottles of wine are half price.
Before “the kitchen is open” sign lights up for the night, Karin Tiffany is prepping ingredients for dishes like steamed clams with tagliatelle pasta and lamb chops with cherry bordelaise sauce.
The menu can be confusing because there is no distinction between appetizers and entrees. Usually, the first couple of dishes listed are starters, our waitress said.
We began our meal by sharing the excellent tuna poke, which came with a seaweed salad that got an extra crunch from jicama sticks, and another dish featuring dreamy balls of creamy burrata snuggled up to roasted acorn and butternut squashes with a balsamic reduction. Hazelnuts scattered like marbles on the plate gave the cheese a sweet kick.
Our main dishes were wow-worthy. In one, juicy, slow-cooked duck leg confit moistened fat, cassoulet-style beans for a hearty version of the classic French dish. For a fish entree, a plump halibut fillet was treated simply with vermouth butter and pine nuts but became even more inspired with a rich spinach risotto.
A tender petite filet mignon surpassed a standard meat-and-potatoes preparation with a blue cheese fondue sauce ennobling the roasted fingerling potatoes and charred red onions.
There are a few dessert offerings, but they’re not afterthoughts. A silky chocolate pot de crème was luscious with a cap of fresh whipped cream and a dish of caramel gelato.
We were most excited the fruit clafouti was being baked in the kitchen on our visit. Served in a hot skillet, the French country dish showcased a baked golden batter studded with mixed berries. The lemon curd on the side added bright citrusy notes to the old-fashioned dessert.
As Peter’s Inn embarks on its 21st year, Bud Tiffany is focused on preserving the restaurant’s legacy. When people ask him why he doesn’t expand the successful venture into the next building, he has this answer.
“It wouldn’t be the same. You wouldn’t have the same experience,” he said. “People would always say, ‘Remember the old days?’ ”
He’s fine with the way it’s always been.