Tio Pepe under health scrutiny Famed restaurant temporarily shut down after 16 people fell ill

February 25, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

One of Baltimore's top-rated restaurants shut down temporarily after 16 patrons became sick in a suspected intestinal bacteria outbreak and the Health Department found violations.

Tio Pepe Restaurante was closed Feb. 11 and reopened the next day, Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson said yesterday. The restaurant remains under investigation by the department after being cited for several violations, including serving the same food to different customers; food handlers not washing their hands; and insect infestation.

The restaurant's president informed the Health Department in a letter Feb. 12 that it had taken steps to comply with regulations.

Inspection reports say that the Health Department was called after 16 people became ill with diarrhea and vomiting after eating Jan. 21 at the downtown restaurant famous for its upscale Spanish and continental cuisine.

The 16 customers, mostly psychiatrists, "had symptoms of gastroenteritis approximately one day following their dinner lecture at Tio Pepe Restaurante," according to a health inspection report. They were among 27 people attending the dinner.

"We can't discuss individuals who got sick and what they got because of confidentiality laws," Beilenson said yesterday, declining to provide additional details.

E. coli, intestinal bacteria often spread by people who do not adequately wash their hands after using the bathroom, was found on some food, Beilenson said.

Before the outbreak, the restaurant was last inspected 18 months ago. Since the outbreak, it has been inspected twice and is likely to undergo a third inspection before the Health Department issues a final report card expected next week.

In his letter to the Health Department, Miguel A. Sanz, the restaurant's president, promised compliance with regulations. "All kitchen personnel have been instructed in proper food handling and sanitization requirements. A staff meeting was held today to emphasize the need for maintaining proper personal hygiene.

"In particular, proper hand washing will be required at the start of the work shift and any time food or food contact surfaces are handled."

Sanz could not be reached yesterday for comment. His attorney refused to discuss the violations. "We would prefer not to make any comment at this time," said Keith Ronald of Thomas, Ronald & Cooper in Towson.

City health inspectors have documented several pages of violations of the restaurant known for its festive atmosphere, impeccably dressed waiters and exotic, rich dishes, such as filet of sole with sauteed bananas and pine-nut cake -- a rolled sponge cake filled with whipped cream and topped with nuts.

Health inspectors warned that a "portion of food once served to a customer may not be served again." An inspector "observed staff of the establishment bring food from customers tables and reusing food items," according to a report.

The inspectors also wrote that the staff would take butter from customers' tables and put it back into a container to be used again. Inspectors also observed that wine containers placed on tables were not washed before being given to another customer.

After health inspectors cited the improper use of eggs, the restaurant ceased the preparation and use of hollandaise and bearnaise sauces until the inspectors approved of better preparation and storage techniques.

Pub Date: 2/25/97

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