You Must Remember This
Four Decades Later, Tio Pepe Still Charms
Do you remember your first time? The walk down the awning-covered cement steps on Franklin Street? The long white hallway lined with folks waiting for tables (despite calling ahead for reservations)? The somber maitre d' who summons you after a rush of diners tumble into the bar area, doggie bags in hand, like passengers discharged from a train?
You were there for a birthday, after a recital, to celebrate graduation, sitting in the grotto-like dining room, all dressed up, like everyone around you. You drank slyly strong sangria poured from a painted ceramic pitcher, tried roast suckling pig just to see what it was, were floored by the slab of pine nut roll, its custard filling spilling over the confines of its sponge cake.
With few exceptions, your first time at Restaurante Tio Pepe is likely similar to your last time, whether your visit was closer to its opening in 1968 or only a week ago, as mine was. The dolls dressed as flamenco dancers still pose in red and black ruffles behind the bar. Much of the staff has remained over the years (when pressed, our server admitted his tenure so far was 32 years), still dressed in red, blue, and gold jackets. And folks still show up to dine sporting their interpretation of what it means to be dressed up. If this happens to be a long-sleeved collared shirt untucked, well, so be it.
Although one receives the impression the staff would like to continue the tradition of requiring jackets (or handing them out to gentlemen without them), instead they nod their heads nearly imperceptibly with a "what can you do" shrug. But without a doubt, Tio Pepe's is still very much a place to celebrate something, as evidenced by the number of people carrying wrapped birthday gifts or the well-groomed couple who sidled up to the bar with an immediate decision of "Champagne!"
After 40 years in business, dinner at Tio Pepe is also still an event, a perpetual re-creation of what fine dining was like in Baltimore when dinner was a night out (instead of one in a series of obligations for the evening) and the competition included Marconi's, Danny's, and the Chesapeake, as well as the still-present Prime Rib. Because of this, it's difficult to separate the memory of Tio Pepe with the actual experience; the two perspectives entwine tightly, and dinner talk is inevitably punctuated with stories of remembering, many that have little to do with the food: the Peabody professor who used to come for lunch accompanied by an ever-changing roster of lithe young women; the time I took my best friend to lunch for her birthday and we tittered like the underage teenagers we were when offered sangria; the jeroboam of wine sent to my sister by an admirer at another table. But the food cannot be ignored, and it is both as good and not as good as you remember, depending on what you order.
My last experience at Tio Pepe was about five years ago, and I remember thinking then that simpler was better, and that still holds true. Unadorned fresh stone crab claws (market price; listed as a special) yielded sweet white meat from their pinky shells. Although pricey, they were much more appealing than the classic shrimp in garlic sauce ($12.50), which seemed like too few shrimp swimming in too much dark sauce, and I wouldn't be surprised if the artichoke hearts with hollandaise ($8.25; also available cold with vinaigrette) traveled from artichokes to plate via a can. Tio Pepe's classic black bean soup ($6.25), however, was just lovely. Enlivened by a sprinkling of raw onion and a spoonful or two of rice added tableside, the velvety soup hinted at the dusky cocoa undertones of molé. Now more commonplace than it must have been when it first appeared on Tio Pepe's menu, try this version to see what the original fuss was about.
The same simple-is-better adage applies to the entrées as well, and in a menu abounding with classic sauces--Bernaise! Green! Sherry!--one must tread carefully, even if one loves sauces (and I do). Tournedos Tio Pepe ($33.25), tenderloin fillets served with a sherry mushroom sauce, once a personal favorite, suffered a lax hand in the kitchen. Requested medium-rare, two fillets arrived nearly raw, while the third was well-done, and the sauce was bland rather than rich. Red snapper napping in a garlicky green sauce ($24.25) fared better, as the sauce held together the dish of fresh fillets plus mussels, instead of drowning the seafood. I've never been a fan of the classic sole with bananas ($24.75)--I find the pairing of sweet bananas and delicate fish jarring--but those at the table familiar with the dish pronounced it appealing and unchanged. The more modest preparation of the other fish entrées--the grouper dressed with bread crumbs and a light meunière (butter and lemon) sauce ($27.25) and a fat fillet of Chilean sea bass with black butter and capers ($30; also a special)--showed off the fish to advantage, allowing its freshness to shine. And yes, the roast suckling pig ($28.75) is as crispy and as succulent as you remember, and the fat slices of pine nut ($8.50) or chocolate and whipped cream sponge roll ($7.50) are still decadent.
Tio Pepe maintains the kind of service nearly extinct at many contemporary restaurants. Servers don't tell you their names, say that they'll "be your waiter this evening," or engage in conversation without being prompted. Instead, they quietly assume responsibility for the evening's service, filleting fish tableside with a gentle flick of the wrist, plating dishes with grace. Like the rest of the Tio Pepe experience, it's all very old-fashioned, to be sure, but not unwelcome, and as the years pass, more and more rare.