Decades of selfless service

Longtime Tio Pepe maitre d' Paco Lobo hangs up his tux after four decades

  • Francisco "Paco" Lobo, maitre d' of Tio Pepe's for more than 40 years, is retiring.
Francisco "Paco" Lobo, maitre d' of Tio Pepe's… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
December 04, 2010|By Laura Vozzella, The Baltimore Sun

Francisco "Paco" Lobo wears out tuxedos the way marathoners do running shoes.

The longtime Tio Pepe maitre d' keeps three tuxes in his wardrobe at any given time, and every year, at least two succumb to the rigors of dry cleaning.

Lobo himself has held up far better.

At 74, he is trim and lively and able to charm hungry, impatient crowds for 10 and 12 hours a day, five days a week, in the elegant Mount Vernon basement restaurant. His hair has gone silver, but the size of his tux jacket, 44 regular, hasn't budged since he started at Tio's more than 40 years ago — no small feat given the occupational hazards of a place that dishes up off-the-menu, twice-fried potatoes known as pommes soufflés before diners even have a chance to order.

But just because Lobo, regarded as the restaurant's Cal Ripken because he has hardly taken a sick day in all those years, can keep going doesn't mean he must. Tio's Iron Man has finally had his fill.

"It's time for me to go because life is that way, but I'm going to miss it," Lobo said two Sundays ago, his last day as full-time maitre d'.

"It's been a great joy and a great ride, really. I love coming to work. You reach 74 and — anyhow," he said, cutting himself off with a wave of his hand. "I'm getting too romantic."

Lobo is not completely hanging up his tuxes. The restaurants' owners, Miguel and Emilio Sanz, have asked him to work one or two days a week. After taking last week off, he expected to be back part-time this week.

But even a semi-retirement represents big change for a restaurant that has seen little of it since its opening in 1968. Tio's has managed to ignore the comings and goings of culinary fashion as improbably as ice cream stands up to broiling in its Baked Alaska, offering a white-tablecloth Continental dining experience that has remained unchanged but for the prices.

Lobo has been the face of this fine-dining Brigadoon. So for Tio Pepe regulars, as accustomed to seeing "Paco" at the front of the house as they are paella on the menu, this feels like the passing of an era — one that ended long ago in the rest of Baltimore.

"He's of the old European manner," said Joanne Linder of Towson, whom Lobo always seated at Table 5, just as he did when she dined with her husband, Rudolph, a steel executive who died in 2003. "Very gracious, always dressed in a tuxedo and tie — it makes a big impression on you when you go into the restaurant because everything is so casual now. I like to see somebody dressed like that. Not everything is lost."

Jim Frey, a real-estate investor from Mount Airy, became so fond of Tio's in general and Lobo in particular that he's traveled to Spain many times to visit the maitre d's family.

"He's a monument," said Frey, who praises the menu for similarly immutable qualities. "What I ate there 40 years ago still tastes the same today."

If time has largely stood still at Tio's, Lobo most certainly has not.

Even on his official "last" day, he dashed around the 200-seat dining room before the restaurant opened, straightening red-cushioned bamboo chairs that had been moved out of place by the vacuuming crew.

"I help," he said, "but I'm not supposed to do this. I have to make sure everything is done well."

His family is ready for Lobo to take it easy. Lobo has a wife — their 1971 wedding reception was at the restaurant — and two grown children. His son, Rick, was a busboy at Tio's as a teen. His daughter, Carolina, worked the front of the house with dad. The jobs gave Lobo's children insight how stressful the job could be.

"It puts acid in the stomach," Rick Lobo said. "It's like having 10 deadlines."

They also witnessed how skillfully their father could disarm guests with grace, humor and the lilting accent of his native Segovia.

Carolina recalled a one-liner he'd use on people waiting in the bar on busy night: "You've got to indulge me, I just started yesterday; I don't know what I'm doing."

Rick noted another line Lobo would deliver as diners headed out after their meals: "Say, how is the food? They tell me it's really good here."

Rick also remembered "the countless Christmas Eves he shows up just in time for midnight Mass, the missed birthdays." The family took those absences in stride, knowing they were hard on Lobo, too. But there were some raw feeling four or five years ago, when health issues cropped up.

"My dad, being on his feet his whole life, has bad varicose veins," Rick said. He planned to have them operated on, and in the course of a pre-operative physical, doctors discovered a six-pound tumor in his chest. Lobo used to smoke — "Every Spanish guy in the world smokes," Rick said — but he quit 35 or 40 years ago.

"All those years of second-hand smoke, that was the one time we said, 'Screw the restaurant business and all that smoke,'" Rick said.

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