The owner and co-founder of Bertha’s Mussels said Thursday that the sale of the 50-year-old Fells Point institution was on pause. “We have not sold it yet,” said Tony Norris. “We’re waiting to see what happens.”
Norris and his family had announced weeks earlier that they were closing down the pub and putting it up for auction. While bidding was set to close at noon Thursday, it was abruptly canceled. The price had soared past $1 million, but Norris said, “We didn’t get what we wanted to get.”
Earlier, the auctioneer had said the owners were in negotiations with a new buyer.
The situation leaves up in the air the future of one of Baltimore’s most recognizable restaurants, known for its “EAT BERTHA’S MUSSELS” bumper stickers that found their way, Norris said, all the way to the South Pole.
After half a century in business, Norris said he and his family are looking to do something else.
The pandemic years have seen a wave of business closures, as restaurateurs face burnout amid staffing shortages and high operating costs. In the Baltimore area, several longtime, family-run establishments have closed, with owners exiting the industry. They include nearby watering hole the Wharf Rat, which closed down after 35 years in Fells Point.
That property was purchased by Jesse Sandlin, who also owns Sally O’s in Highlandtown. Asked if she was interested in the Bertha’s Mussels property, Sandlin replied: “Definitely not. I’ve got too much [stuff] going on.” After a lengthy renovation process at that space, she wasn’t sure she would invest in another old building again.
Essentially two non-neighboring structures mashed together, the Bertha’s Mussels building includes an unused dining room upstairs, with an abandoned dance studio and a storage closet that may contain a ghost. The building wraps around neighboring storefront Brightside Boutique like a turtle shell. Residents who live in a second-floor apartment above the boutique get into their apartment through a door in the bar.
The Baltimore Banner asked several area restaurateurs about the property; none expressed interest. “We neither signed up for the auction nor bid on this property,” Alex Smith, whose Atlas Restaurant Group has been scooping up properties in Fells Point in recent years, said in a text message.
“Not for me,” said Ashish Alfred, who owns Duck Duck Goose and other restaurants in Fells Point, when asked about the property. “It’s an amazing piece of Baltimore and hopefully it goes to someone cool.”
To many in the area, the history of Bertha’s Mussels is intertwined with Fells Point’s survival and a grassroots effort to fend off the extension of a major highway through the area.
In those days, everyone called the waterfront neighborhood “the Foot of Broadway,” said Susan Krieger, 78, who directed an art gallery in the neighborhood. “We were there to bring people down to try to stop this road.”
“You looked at the place and you just felt that the past was the future of Fells Point. Not this road,” recalled her husband, Hirsch Krieger, 84.
At the time, said Susan Krieger, local officials were condemning properties to make way for the extension of the highway. That had led to vacant properties and cheap rents, which drew artists and bohemian types into the neighborhood. But the port’s appeal had another element.
“It was sex, drugs and rock and roll,” said David Gleason, who moved to Fells Point in the late 1970s. A gritty, lawless atmosphere pervaded the streets. College kids came in from the suburbs to drink.
The highway project “was disastrous for the neighborhoods,” said Gleason, president of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point — an organization founded to prevent the highway’s construction.
Bars like Bertha’s helped draw in younger crowds, reinvigorating the area while keeping the highway at bay.
Founded in 1972, Bertha’s was originally called Bertha E. Bartholomew’s, named for an inscription on a stained glass window that decorated the interior.
Hirsch Krieger, who was an early partner of the bar along with the Norrises, helped decorate the building with knickknacks from local antique shops. He built the tables from wooden floors salvaged from a warehouse being demolished downtown.
People came from around the city, filling seats at Bertha E. Bartholomew’s alongside local watering holes like the Cat’s Eye Pub, the Horse You Came in on Saloon and Turkey Joe’s, which is now closed. John Waters and his friends were regulars.
It was Turkey Joe’s owner Joseph C. “Turkey Joe” Trabert that got started with the seafood trend in Fells, serving up oysters and clams on the weekends. Hirsch Krieger says he decided that Bertha’s should start serving mussels, like the ones he had eaten so frequently during his travels in Spain, France and Italy. He worked with the restaurant’s cook to come up with a recipe. Norris disputes Hirsch Krieger’s account, saying it was really the cook who came up with it.
Regardless, the dish, a rarity in Baltimore at the time, quickly caught on at the restaurant. “The fish market was importing a bag a week for Little Italy, and once we started up, we were doing ten bags by ourselves,” Hirsch Krieger said. “We were going great guns with the mussels.”
They were such a hit that Norris decided to have some bumper stickers made. The stickers read: “EAT BERTHA’S MUSSELS.”
The way Hirsch Krieger tells it, he made the stickers go the pre-internet equivalent of viral. “I took a stack and I posted them in the neighborhood. In Bolton Hill, Mount Washington. They were a nuisance. I stuck them on lampposts. Any place it said, ‘Don’t put a sticker here.’”
Over the years, Hirsch Krieger heard of people spotting them in bathrooms in Paris or Alaska, even in the wheelhouse of a ship passing through the Panama Canal. Someone moving to California would put a sticker on their car. “People began to identify Baltimore with Bertha’s Mussels,” Hirsch Krieger said.
The owners eventually changed the name — Bertha E. Bartholomew’s was too long to write, anyhow — and after around a decade, Hirsch Krieger said, the Norrises bought him out of the business. Though he lost touch with the couple, he remains grateful to them for their stewardship of the pub for half a century.
Today, Fells Point is a far cry from the affordable-but-seedy “Foot of Broadway.” Preservationists succeeded in fending off the highway, a victory that forever changed the face of Baltimore — keeping two of its oldest neighborhoods intact.