Virtually all of Baltimore's great restaurants from the 50s and 60s are now closed with the exception of the one-time champ of them all – Tio Pepe's. I'm sure for many of you, the style of the food at Tio Pepe's seems ridiculously outdated as does the serving style. But in eating there tonight, I was reminded that for food quality and excellence, it is still a rare dining experience.
The trick to appreciating Tio's is to realize that the ingredients – the meat, fish and vegetables – are of amazing and consistently high quality. It is one of the best, if not the best place in Baltimore for seafood. Tonight I ate the Red Snapper in Green Sauce with mussels, clams, asparagus and hard boiled egg. The fish was incredible as was the preparation. The beef and veal are just as good. In the past, I've had the Sturgeon in Black Butter – an unusual and fantastic preparation. Of course, it's hard to order anything else if the Suckling Pig is on the menu.
The desserts are scrumptious. Tonight, I ordered the warm chocolate souffle. This item, which is not on the menu, needs to be requested when you order your dinner since it is prepared to order. It comes to the table hot in its own souffle mold. At the table, the waiter pokes a hole in the middle of the steaming souffle and pours in cold chocolate sauce. He then hides the damage with a large dollop of whipped cream. You might find a trendier dessert, but I can't imagine finding one that makes you happier.
Generally, unless I am famished, I don't order from the regular list of appetizers. All are incredibly rich and buttery, even most of the soups. Instead I usually order one of the side vegetables to start – the artichoke hearts with Serrano ham or the mushrooms. I find this gives you a better shot at getting through the meal without total overload. If I think I can handle the richness, I do sometimes go for the snails in garlic butter. It is a classic and delicious preparation that never goes out of style.
(Generally you want to be cognizant of ordering too many dishes with rich sauces. Like restaurants in its day, Tio's heavily sauces its food. There are some dishes, like a Rockfish with Crabmeat and Champagne Sauce that I can just tell from the menu will be too heavy to consume comfortably.)
As many wine geeks know, Tio's has an amazing but often overlooked collection of older Spanish wines which it rotates onto its wine list. (The restaurant is in a basement and was purchasing Spanish wines back into the 60s.) Tonight they had on the menu Marquez de Riscal Riserva Rioja's from 1969 and 1970 for $69 and $70. Where else can you purchase a wine older than your date at such a reasonable cost!
A few things have changed about Tio's in ways that are not so good. This used to be the hottest ticket in Baltimore and a jacket and tie was strictly required for the men. I'm afraid that the dress of many patrons has gotten ridiculously and in my view, inappropriately casual. Tonight most of the men seemed to be wearing Dockers, and one family showed up with three teenage boys all in jeans. For me, the quality of the food deserves better. This is a place where the men should be wearing suits or at least fancy evening attire and the women cocktail dresses.
Finally, as prices have steadily risen elsewhere, Tio's has gone from being one of the most expensive restaurants in town to a veritable bargain. A full meal, excluding wine comes to approximately $50. Given the quality, that's hard to beat. If you haven't tried Tio's recently and approach it with the right attitude, you may find it to be a wonderful dining experience. It is a bit of a time warp, but truthfully, it looks like those folks back in the 60s were having a hell of a lot of fun for dinner.
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