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Mussel Memory

An Old Favorite Has Great Ambiance But Lacks the Culinary Chops to Back It Up

Christopher Myers


Address:734 S. Broadway St.
Baltimore, MD 21231

More on Bertha's.

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 4/2/2008

Let's drink a pint of Guinness for Bertha's (734 S. Broadway [410] 327-5795): for authenticity, for staying true to its crotchety self, and to the mystique of a pre-developed--we're talking Nixon-era--Fells Point. (And if it weren't for Bertha's and then Ledbetters, the Horse You Came in On, and the Whistling Oyster having cleared the brush, would Fells Point ever have evolved into the urban wonderland it is today?) And let's all raise our glasses in praise of live music in a crowded corner bar on a cobblestone street and, while we're at it, let's drink another to the enduring appeal of a memorabilia- and bric-a-brac-stuffed dining room when the stuff has been hand-chosen and the room has 19th-century bones.

Now, a shot for a sweet veteran staff and another for Sunday brunch and one more for high tea--now by reservation only--and how about an Irish coffee while we consider the bumper sticker, eat bertha's mussels, because you just try to create such a perfect thing, an icon, and see how far you get.

And only now, having given Bertha's its due, can we bear to talk about the food, which is not very nice at all. Mostly it feels tired and dated. Now, no one wants Bertha's to get trendy. It's not small plates of ahi tuna and grilled calamari that's needed; it's fresher ingredients, especially fresher seafood, and fresh herbs wouldn't turn the place into a yuppie bar.

Perhaps the dining room is meant to be just for tourists. If you've never had fresh seafood, you might not realize that Bertha's seafood has no flavor because it's so badly overcooked. Shrimp, scallops, and oysters sure don't seem fresh to begin with--if they are, heating all the flavor out of them is an even graver sin. And it's not just that; it's also chintzy touches like putting those fake "crab leg" strips in the seafood macaroni salad--seriously, don't do that--and offering a bland oyster stew ($8.95) with the consistency and mouth appeal of skim milk.

Bertha's isn't a particular bargain. Pan-fried crab cakes are decent, if underseasoned, with a fair mix of backfin and lump, but $30-plus is too much for a crab cake platter, even if it comes with some supermarket-style sides and a bowling league-banquet house salad. $9.75 wouldn't be bad for a good shrimp salad sandwich, but it is for a bad one, with shyly seasoned and overcooked shrimp.

Bertha's "Maurice" preparation combo ($19.95), which consists of tasteless rubbery shrimp and flavorless overdone scallops with garlic, lemon, sherry, and honey, might actually work with better ingredients, but who could say? The Maurice typifies Bertha's old-fashioned approach to seafood preparations--garlic butter, cream sauces, oysters served with toast tips--a way of doing things that could be appreciated for its classicism if it were done right. It did work at least once: Bertha's saged-and-sherried chicken liver appetizer ($8.95) is delicious, the livers clean, tender, sweet, and perfectly seasoned.

I don't remember Bertha's serving its mussels, as it does now, unhappily, with the dipping sauce on the side. Eight sauces are available, but whether one (75 cents) or all eight ($12.40) are ordered, the mussels arrive naked. The sauces aren't bad--the spinach with garlic butter and the basil and capers with garlic butter stand out--and the mussels are evenly steamed, clean, and not stinky. But this is an awful way to serve mussels. A good mussel sauce gets it flavor from having mussels steamed in it. Even if the sauce is poured over separately steamed mussels it would be better than Bertha's method. I can think of a thousand reasons why Bertha's does do it this way; none of them makes up for how disappointing it all is.

The food is no good, but the people are, and, in the end, you'd almost rather out-of-towners have a bad meal here than someplace else. If you send someone, tell him to eat Bertha's liver. H

Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday.

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