Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Eat Bertha's mussels
Larry Bly runs an ad agency and does freelance writing in the Roanoke area.
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Whether or not you've ever been to Bertha's in the Fells Point section of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, you've no doubt seen the bumper sticker on one car or another (or on a T-shirt) that states quite simply: "EAT BERTHA'S MUSSELS." It was certainly a longtime curiosity to me when I'd go to the beach and see those words. Sometimes simple is best, and this slogan has served Bertha's well for decades.
Bertha's bar is dark and funky looking, with old stools, worn down wooden booths, and tons of junk stuck to everything in sight -- the walls, the ceilings, the bar, the bathroom, anything else that doesn't move.
Bertha's could make you believe that with its rustic turn of the century flooring and walls, it had been around for hundreds of years. Fact is, the building itself was a part of the old bars, warehouses and 18th and 19th century buildings that lined cobblestone streets in this old section of the Baltimore harbor. And while this property did indeed house a pub way back when, the idea for Bertha's only came about in the '70s, when the current owners decided to help save Fells Point, which was in peril with planned Interstates poised to level the entire area. A grassroots effort by legions of local shop owners, bar and restaurant people, and other like-minded souls helped get the area designated to the National Historic Register; thus saving this old neighborhood and creating one of Baltimore's more charming destinations.
One can only envision the place at the turn of the century. It must have been pretty dicey, what with the sailors and watermen coming in for a tankard at the end of a long day. It was a rough and tumble area back in the 1950s when my father and his brother and my granddad worked for the B&O Railroad in nearby Camden Yards. My burley ancestors beat a hasty retreat to their cars when arriving at Camden after dark. Danger lurked everywhere in the old yard and nearby neighborhoods.
Fortunately for us today, the place now features friendly bars, restaurants and tony shops. I've spent many a day wandering the cobblestone street of Fells Point, taking it all in and enjoying the fresh seafood you still find there.
Once past the quaint old bar at Bertha's, you'll find the dining rooms -- stark with worn wooden floors -- but charming and perfect for the simple yet elegant food served.
The signature dishes are -- you guessed it -- mussels. I've had steaming plates of them (actually overflowing bowls the last time I was there) served in seven or eight different sauces: garlic butter, butter & capers, basil and garlic butter, sour cream and scallions, spinach, tarragon & garlic butter, Spanish sauce, Anchovy, tomato and garlic butter, and Lancaster creamy mustard sauce. I usually stick to garlic butter and capers, a favorite. Yum!
The laid back atmosphere of Bertha's belies the sophisticated offerings.
Just a few appetizers include escargot, pelican shrimp, saged chicken livers, and Turkish stuffed mussels.
Soups are always great here: Maryland crab, mussel chowder, and oyster stew. I adore the tomato-based soups and chowders of Maryland.
There are salads. But you're in seafood land, so who cares? You can get omelets any time and sandwiches as well. But it's about the seafood at Bertha's -- shrimp, broiled any number of ways -- in tomato-lemon-garlic sauce, in honey-lemon-garlic-sherry-butter on rice.
There's an item for around 20 bucks called "Shellfish Royale," which is shrimp, oysters, scallops, mussels and Smithfield ham in a cream sauce with sherry on toast. How about creamed scallops, shrimp, or a combo called "Oysters William," which is served with Smithfield ham in a cream sauce on toast. There's your obligatory crab cake platter served with homemade potato salad and coleslaw; and, of course, the fresh fish of the day, scrawled on the blackboard.
For the land-based folk amongst us: rice dishes galore, broiled meats that include chicken, filet mignon, T-bones, and a chicken livers sauté (with sherry, onions, green peppers, mushrooms). Plus veggies and a delicious ravioli.
And homemade desserts: pecan-butter tart, coconut-damson tart, apple crumb cake, Scottish trifle (layers of homemade cake soaked in brandy with fruit juice, custard filling, fruit and whipped cream). Sort of like an English trifle, but with a brogue.
There's a respectable wine list, as one might expect in such a large city, as well as an extensive beer list. I've always found the bar-keep (usually a woman) to be highly entertaining and friendly. Same with the wait-staff.
The place strikes a good balance with the customers.
Oh yes, and though I've never attended, there's "Mrs. McKinnon's Scottish Afternoon Tea." For under $10 (just barely) you can enjoy scones and assorted tarts, served with butter, jam and homemade whipped cream.
There's also an excellent Sunday brunch (11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.) that allows you to choose (a la carte) from such items as crab cake Benedict, salmon Benedict, eggs Benedict, Welsh rarebit with country sausage, eggs rarebit with country sausage, creamed chipped oysters, omelets of all sorts, French toast, eggs any style with country sausage, and muffins, jam and butter.
Bertha's is a great place. Fells Point is a nice walk-around on a sunny day.
One parting shot: Bertha's has a fine Web site that even takes you on a tour of the place, so you can see it for yourself. Considerable time and design work went into the sight. But sometimes it's the little things that get missed. Come on guys ... hire a proof reader and figure out the difference between DINNING and DINING.
Broadway & Lancaster streets
Baltimore, MD 21231