Blog: No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service

The Hungry Man visits four “special occasion” restaurants, which have the audacity to expect diners to wear appropriate attire and make reservations in advance.

The Hungry Man's compendium of fine dining establishments in Baltimore which have the nerve to expect diners to arrive in appropriate attire and have made reservations in advance.

The Prime Rib
1101 N. Calvert Street
Baltimore, MD 21202

Morton’s Steakhouse
300 S. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21201

The Oregon Grill
1201 Shawan Road
Cockeysville, MD21030


Tio Pepe
10 E. Franklin Street
Baltimore, MD 21201


All four of the above restaurants are considered “special
occasion” places because for any of us without company expense accounts, they are all too bloody expensive to dine at on a regular basis – at least for those of us in the 99%, much less those in the 47%.

From the start, I have to say that the food at all four is extraordinarily good and the service never less than mediocre. I’ll touch on the menus of each but with one exception, The Oregon Grill; I have to put the
slam on them for letting their dress codes slip in recent years.

Let me begin with Morton’s in Baltimore, one of the many nationally known steakhouses that originated in Chicago. Morton’s is located in the part of downtown Baltimore that relies on tourist income to support itself. I had heard that the food there surpassed typical tourist fare so off we went after first making a reservation and checking their web site for the dress code, if any. “Business Casual” is what the web site suggested, along with a firm recommendation for reservations. When talking to the Maître’d he suggested that if we thought we would be ordering Prime Rib for dinner, that we do so in advance, and further,
if we wanted end cuts to do so as well. It seemed a bit strange that a
steakhouse wouldn’t have an ample supply of aged prime rib steaks for any night of the week but perhaps at the price of $45 each it wasn’t too much to ask, so I predicted we’d want one serving of prime rib in advance. Where I once insisted that all my meat be cooked well done I’ve eased up considerably in recent time to understand that medium-rare does anything other than chicken or pork justice.

Parking is not free at Morton’s, as it is at the Oregon Grill and The Prime Rib, so expect at least an additional $6.00 in expense for the evening. The restaurant is large and spread-out with very comforttble booths which seat the diners facing the center of the room. Staff is dressed in
tuxedos and are very polished and accommodating. Let’s just say the dinner went extremely well with the expensive entrees not leaving any room for complaint, from appetizer to dessert. The entrees were cooked to perfection and portions quite large. Gotta love those left-overs!

However, this trip to Town was an eye opener for what passes as “business casual”.  A weeknight, the restaurants was not full of patrons but at one point a group of men were seated across from our table, all wearing Harley Davidson t-shirts and sneakers. Hmm, I looked around the room to find that only one man besides me had worn a jacket to
dinner. Most other men did at least have collars on their shirts. Women wore everything from dress jeans to dresses. I assumed that things must be awfully competitive in Harborplace area restaurants that they couldn’t afford to ask guests for better than t-shirts. Frankly, with wine and tip, this dinner cost over $200 for two and I’ll be damned if I want to wear a t-shirt and jeans for a special occasion with that sort of price tag. As we were paying our tab a table of four was seated beside up. The lead male in the party had a sports team shirt on, hanging outside his pants. One of the party had on a cologne so strong in scent that were we not leaving I would have asked the Maître‘d to either seat them elsewhere or move us so I could smell the food over whatever that male/female concoction was.  All of this may sound stuck-up and blue-blooded but I’m sticking to my guns on believing that attire fit for McDonalds is not suited to fine dining establishments.
Shame, I won’t go back for dinner at Morton’s in Baltimore again as both the meal and service was extraordinary.

Tio Pepe.
Business may be off at some Baltimore restaurants but not so here, where consistently over the decades, regardless of the time of your reservation, you were in for a long, uncomfortable wait of 15 to 30 minutes to be seated. Lately the long wait has disappeared and the service has improved with the arrival of a new, very attentive Maitre’d. Here the tables are jammed in tightly and the rooms very noisy from all of the tables full of patrons celebrating all sorts of special occasions. Here too the food is consistently good and actually not as expensive as the other three restaurants I have bundled into this group review. This is a great place to visit with friends, if only to share the large pitchers of cold Sangria laden with fresh fruit that are a tradition here (watch it, the stuff will sneak up on you!) Also a tradition is the Paella a la Valenciana. Prepared only for two at $49, this is a huge, delicious concoction of lobster, mussels, chorizo, shrimp and chicken over  Spanish rice. Tio Pepe also serves a delightful rack of lamb for two with mint jelly – do not eat the tasty bread or order a large appetizer with this entrée as you just won’t have room for the main course. Among the many appetizers available are the Oysters Rockefeller. This preparation of creamed spinach and melted cheese on the half shell will have you wonder where the monster oysters came from as they are reminiscent of those found in the Chesapeake Bay prior to the 1940’s. The serving will suit two. Parking is on the street or in a nearby garage but not included in the price of dinner. The desserts are quite famous at Tio Pepe, particularly the Pine Nut Roll cake but it’s hard to imagine anyone having room for desserts here, where the portions are so large.

Tio Pepe does not advertise a dress code although we found most of the diners there in actual business casual or more formal dress. Yet there were the exceptions, mostly young adults, who decided that the appropriate dress was similar to costumes from Cirque de Soleil. When did it become fashionable for plump young women to wear costumes with bare mid-drifts exposing really unattractive fat bellies? Must be part of the tattoo fashionista craze that many will come to regret in just a few years.  Alas, Tio Pepe is none the worse for it so if a noisy, crowded restaurant with excellent food is your thing, go for it. I get the feeling that the Maitre’d will assure that your wait for a table will be quite long if you decide to wear a T-shirt though.

The Prime Rib, on Calvert Street does provide free valet parking and if the expense finds its way onto menu by disguise, it’s OK with me because trying to find a parking space on the surrounding crowded residential streets is an impossibility. The Prime Rib in Baltimore is the original, with newer locations now in Washington, DC and Philadelphia. This is the home of a consistently great dining experience. When making a reservation, I suggest you ask to be seated near the grand piano in the larger of the two rooms there. Here, the decor is black lacquered walls with bold modern paintings. All of the staff knows how to treat
you as if you were a regular patron even if it’s your first trip there and to make you feel as special as the occasion that brought you there. Regardless of what you may have in mind for dinner (gee, guess what I had), I really don’t recommend that you order an appetizer unless you certainly want to take considerable left-overs home.

The Prime Rib is no more expensive than the other restaurants in this review but do be prepared to spend lavishly as the prime, aged beef is priced on the high end and all side dishes are extra cost items. The Greenberg Potato skins can be split for two and make a nice addition to the meal. Freshly shaved raw horseradish accompanies all of the beef dishes. The seafood entrees I have seen served there looked delicious and were gorgeously presented but then they don’t call it “House of Salmon” for a reason.

Here you are forewarned that business casual is appropriate prior to 5 PM and that a jacket will be provided for gentlemen without one after 5; however on my last visit there some of the Cirque de Soleil set had escaped Top Pepes and landed there – it didn’t appear to me that the Maître d’ was going to give that large party the boot, or a jacket, or refuse service. At least they all did have shoes on. In thirty years of going to The Prime Rib I’ve never regretted the choice and they now offer reduced fare menus on weeknights and specials. Get on their e mail list!

Finally, there is the thoroughly blue-blooded, thoroughly thoroughbreded Oregon Grill on Shawan Rd. in Hunt Valley. It’s only recently that they relaxed their requirement for neckties on gentlemen, however they do require jackets after 5 PM inside the restaurant and they mean it. They do have a huge, attractive patio dining area / bar which is informal. Parking is free on the large lot adjoin the restaurant. When you consider the very expensive menu at The Oregon Grill, it’s astounding that the parking lot is so full for lunch or dinner, weekday or weekend. It is certainly a very attractive restaurant with both floors having their distinctive racing themed flavor; however, the first floor is where you’ll find the piano and jazz trio playing quietly and likely be seated in one of the comfortable booths with heavy etched glass  partitions.

Appetizers are extraordinary here and I recommend you find one to your suiting from the very large offering including the seafood tower for two. I thoroughly recommend the grilled oysters as an appetizer; they are market priced but a very special preparation that will have you searching for more bread to take up the accompanying rue.

The entrees specialize in steaks and chops but I thoroughly recommend the Colorado Lamb Loin. Here you will encounter Cowboy Steaks, which
are various sizes of rib-eye steaks, several preparations of other steak cuts and of course, Prime Rib that exceeds the size of the plate. The wine list is huge with some bottles approaching the cost of your monthly car payment. Actually, some of the bottles from the great growths of France approximate a hefty mortgage payment for many folks.  Service has always been attentive here to me but I have heard some complain that it is “snooty”. Considering that the wait staff here can and do earn that monthly car payment in an evening’s tips I would suggest that the diners are more likely to be snooty than the servers. Forgedabout it if you don’t have a reservation, the place is packed for a reason.

Well that sums up my attempt to lump 4 good restaurants into one review and file my complaint on the state of what passes for dress in such places. Next birthday, anniversary or bonus check, I hope you do try one of them and feel them worth the expense to make your occasion all that more special.

I urge you to use the Open Table reservation service as it is free and rewards you with dining points for every reservation. They will remind you of your reservation a day before the meal and reservations are easy to change or cancel if necessary. www.opentable.com/baltimore-restaurants

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David A. Grand October 09, 2012 at 03:57 PM
Which is it? First, you zing 'em for their dress code, exorbitant prices and requiring reservations, then praise them to high heaven for their dishes. Can't have it both ways. And who, among those reading your review, besides yourself and others in the well-to-do class, would ever consider going to any of them in the first place?


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