When I was growing up in the 70's, Midwesterners who ventured to the Wisconsin Dells often came back with a few things - a memory of a great time, some cherry wine, and a bumper sticker on their car from the Tommy Bartlett Watershow. Tommy Bartlett's Watershow was an extravaganza featuring lots of daring waterskiing stunts. It was a great show to see, but the drawback was that while in the show, the Tommy Bartlett staff would be out in the parking lot plastering your bumpers with "Tommy Bartlett" bumper stickers. There were various legends about how to get or not get a bumper sticker, usually involving putting your car antenna up or down, and eventually, Tommy Bartlett's was forced to stop the obnoxious practice, but you couldn't drive around the upper Midwest in the 70's and early 80's without seeing one of their bumper stickers.
In Baltimore, I've seen one bumper sticker as ubiquitous as the Tommy Bartlett ones used to be in Chicago and that would be the simple green bumper sticker that proclaims in white lettering - "EAT BERTHA'S MUSSELS". The bumper stickers are voluntary in this case, and you'll be given a few with your check at the end of a satisfying meal of mollusks at this Fell's Point institution.
Bertha's has character. The small dark bar on the corner feels like its been there for eons. The people are friendly, the good but limited choice of beers is well selected, and the atmosphere is funky but comfortable.
If you choose to bypass the bar and go in through the restaurant, you'll find yourself in a friendly, dingy place that looks a lot cleaner than it smells. The smell fades quickly. You'll start with a basket of thickly sliced dry bread and butter. Although the menu offers oyster chowder, escargot, burgers, veggie burgers, and fresh fish of the day, the real attraction at Bertha's is the mussels.
There's even a folk song about Bertha's Mussels
They will cure your diarrhea, cure your constipation, too.
Just swallow a box for the chicken pox, the measles or the flu.
Now, if you fancy a healthy life, get your daily doses straight
A plate a day of Bertha's mussels, and you'll live 'til you're 98.
I wasn't feeling ill at all, but I started with a minestrone-like mussel chowder that was more tomatoes, vegetables, and mussels than broth. I'd never had a mussel soup before, and was pleased with the execution of this warming homey chowder.
Bertha's serves mussels in meal-sized bowls with one of eight sauces on the side. My dining companion tried the mussels with melted garlic basil butter and a wedge of lemon, and I squeezed lemon into my little cup of butter, anchovy, tomato and garlic sauce. We pried open the black and perlescent shelled mussels which had a nice orange cast to their meat and were often surprisingly large.
A few of the mussels were slightly overcooked, but on the whole, Bertha's mussels are delicious in either of the two sauces we tried or, I suspect in any of the eight total sauces you can order with them. Service was attentive and the mussels paired well with a Hoegaarten beer with a slice of lemon.
The best part was that a full meal of mussels for two, two beers, and one cup of chowder cost us only $32 and, as I mentioned above, came with three bumper stickers. Not too bad for a filling, delicious meal.
Bertha's is not a top of the line haute cuisine eatery. It's a good food and beer "joint" and matches the character of the city it's in - blue collar, quirky, practical, and satisfying. If you want good bar food and great mussels, just read the bumper of the car in front of you and head down to Broadway at the inner harbor to Eat Bertha's Mussels.
Bertha's Resturant & Bar
734 S. Broadway, Fells Point
Baltimore, Maryland 21231