Baltimore's Classic Restaurants Buck the Trends
They’re tucked away among brownstones and cobblestone streets or holding anchor over the Inner Harbor. They’re Baltimore’s classic restaurants. They serve as a reminder that in the fickle, faddish world of the restaurant industry, there are some that have stood the test of time by keeping it simple.
To compete with the bevy of restaurants that have opened over the last half year, classics like the Black Olive, Sotto Sopra, the Rusty Scupper, Tio Pepe, and the Prime Rib are using the freshest ingredients, offering discounts and other promotions via social media, refreshing their properties and cutting costs - but not corners.
While there’s no one secret to success, consultant and executive director of Bilingual Hospitality Training Solutions, Juliet Bodinetz-Rich, offers advice to remain open for decades in Baltimore.
“Service is as important as great food," she says. "Many restaurants keep the same staff for years. That shows that the owner is doing something right."
The Black Olive
The Black Olive, while the most recently established, still has a decade (or more) on many of Baltimore’s restaurants. Executive Chef Pauline Spiliadis and her husband, Stelios, opened the Greek restaurant in 1997. While Chef Spiliadis is not Greek herself, she has a soft spot for the food.
“My mother-in-law is an excellent cook,” she says. “I experimented on my family for years.”
At the Black Olive, customers see fresh fish imported from the Chesapeake to the Mediterranean, fileted in the dining room.
"They have some of the freshest seafood in town,” raves Homeland resident Ian Friedman. “The fact that they filet tableside is pretty amazing.”
The owners often travel to vendors’ countries to ensure that they’re serving only the finest oceanic fare. Spiliadis notes that the Black Olive was the only fine-dining restaurant in the area for years.
“We were the vanguard of white-tablecloth restaurants in Fells Point. Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman were the only others,” she says.
After years of planning, their inn, market, and rooftop restaurant Olive Room opened last year.
“We built [the inn] during the worst time,” Spiliadis laughs, “but it’s catching on.” A New York Times
review helps, as does the 60 percent to 70 percent energy savings from eco-friendly elements like geothermal wells and recovered wood furniture. This saves them $7,000 each month.
After opening in 1996 as a contemporary Italian establishment, Executive Chef Riccardo Bosio’s Sotto Sopra has changed minimally over 17 years.
“Never follow too many trends,” Bosio says. “Follow basic needs. You have to stick with your roots.”
Bosio’s roots have served Sotto Sopra well. Customers are welcomed by his sister’s artwork lining the walls and an active happy hour. Following a night at the Lyric or Hippodrome, they flood in for homemade pasta.
“Sotto Sopra’s housemade pasta is like an escape to Italy,” says local entertainment guru Diane Macklin
While molecular gastronomy may be all the rage in some new restaurants, you won’t find it at Sotto Sopra. Bosio’s Italian fare includes prosciutto di parma, veal saltimbocca, and an array of formaggi
Sotto Sopra reaches new audiences on Facebook and Twitter, where they announce specialty nights like “Chef for a Day,” opera nights, and “Pay What You Want” dinners. They post recipes on the website, sharing secrets of Italian cooking.
“My fiancée and I went to Sotto Sopra for our first date, and then celebrated with our parents after I proposed to her,” shares Baltimore resident Brian Hoffman. “It’s a special place with staff who appreciate the restaurant's importance to us.”
The Rusty Scupper
During the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor in the 1980s, the Rusty Scupper opened to offer breathtaking harbor views and quality local seafood. Thirty years later, their high standard of customer service carries them from decade to decade.
Owner John Quagliata understands the importance of a well-trained staff as part of the dining experience. He developed a restaurant success formula to ensure exceptional customer service. Zagat reviewers gush about “incredible” and “knowledgeable” servers; frequent customer Mary Jane Rodini shares that sentiment.
“Not only is the food delicious and the setting gorgeous, but the management has set such a high standard—and the staff meets it.”
The restaurant is keeping its property fresh, having gone through two major renovations since 1982 to add private dining rooms and a temperature-controlled wine cellar. And while not part of the original concept, their Sunday jazz brunch has won several awards.
“The Baltimore restaurant scene has changed dramatically since the early days of the Rusty Scupper,” says General Manager Edward Prutzer. “We continue to grow in that environment and are very proud to be a part of it.”
Pedro Sanz opened Tio Pepe to introduce Baltimore to traditional Spanish cuisine. From 1968 to 2012, little has changed; Tio Pepe continues to focus on seasoned, flavorful Spanish fare.
“You wonder whether preparations need tweaking or the menu needs updating,” says Tio Pepe Owner Miguel Sanz. “You don't want to upset your regulars, but you want to attract new customers.”
Tio Pepe tries to appease both crowds by keeping much of the menu untouched but introducing specials attuned to modern tastes.
“Their fresh fish in Riojana sauce—ole!” says Diane Macklin. “Save room for the pine nut roll. [It’s] Spanish heaven.”
Customers return for special occasions—or simply a weekly lunch. A group of gentlemen affectionately referred to as the “Friday Boys” have had a weekly lunch for 36 years.
“Customers' expectations are not very different from what they were 40 years ago,” Sanz says. “They expect to leave satisfied, feeling that their experience was worth it.”
The Prime Rib
With heavy leather chairs and leopard-print carpeting, the Prime Rib is a nod to a bygone era when men wore dinner jackets and insisted on pulling out a lady’s chair.
“The Prime Rib is a throwback to supper clubs,” says Patti Neumann, CEO of Citypeek Marketing and Social Media Solutions. “One of its best assets is its consistency. You know what you are going to get and it looks, smells, and tastes just as you remembered.”
The Prime Rib was the last restaurant in town to require the dinner jacket, a policy they ended four years ago. While the management knew that the dress code made them unique, they were also losing customers in an era of business casual.
“We’ve found that most men still wear jackets, especially on weekends,” General Manager David Derewicz says.
What started as a dining room overlooking Chase Street has expanded to include Washington, D.C, and Philadelphia locations. The restaurant is planning a joint venture with the Cordish Cos. to open at the Arundel Mills slots parlor this summer.
To compete on price, the Prime Rib offers incentives like half-price wine on Sundays and surprise promotions to their email list. They market via social media, participate in Restaurant Week, and offer Groupon deals.
“But you can’t cut corners,” Derewicz stresses. “If you want to be the best, you must invest the best into your business. That is exactly the same today, more than 45 years later.”
Consultant Juliet Bodinetz-Rich agrees. Sticking with the same proven formula sometimes works better than embracing every new trend.
“Recognize that if something isn’t broken—don’t change it.”
Renee Libby Beck is a freelance writer and public relations coordinator for Medifast Inc. Renee is the Baltimore Food Examiner for Examiner.com and writes for other local blogs and publications.
David Derewicz, general manager of The Prime Rib.
Roast prime rib at The Prime Rib.
Emiliano Sanz, head chef at Tio Pepe, with paella a la Valenciana for two.
Broiled prime rib at Tio Pepe.
Pauline Spiliadis, executive chef and owner at The Black Olive.
Fresh fish at The Black Olive.
All photographs by STEVE RUARK