When Bertha's Mussels Flex Her Muscles

By Cathy Adams

     In 1972, Laura and Tony Norris purchased a bar in Fell's Point, intending to have live chamber music, readings and chess and backgammon games. Classical musicians, they moved here from Washington attracted by the availability of reasonable housing and the diversity of the community. They didn't know what to name the bar and didn't have one for months. Tony Norris, an avid collector of flea market antiques, had found three pieces of stained glass from a church that was being remodeled and hung them in the bar. They were memorials for parishioners. One of them was for Bertha E. Bartholomew, and that became the name.

     They were able to have live music until the city took back "cabaret" licenses. In the Seventies, strippers on the block used live bands. Communities were afraid that strip clubs that were being moved from The Block would move into neighborhoods if they had that kind of license.

     The Norrises decided to put in food, for "fun." "There was no actual sit-down restaurants in those days," said Laura Norris, and some people couldn't believe that they were going to try to have a real restaurant.

     But when they started serving food, "the lines went down the block," said Laura. Today, Bertha's is still busy, and it has popularized mussels with its "Eat Bertha's Mussels" bumper stickers. They serve 2,000 pounds of mussels a week.

     "We still use wild mussels," said Laura. "They do vary in size and texture, but the wild ones have more taste. We get them from Maine and Massachusetts within two days off the boat."

     Bertha's serves little washing bowls in case the mussels are sandy, which generally only happens when there are stormy seas. The mussels are available with a choice of nine sauces, from a simple garlic butter, to a spinach, tarragon garlic butter (recipe follows).

     Bertha's is also notable for serving afternoon tea, which happened by accident. Laura's mother was always baking. On one cold, wet day, she had baked a big plate of scones. Two customers came in to warm up, and they wanted dessert or something light to eat. "We gave them tea and scones (rhymes with ron's)," said Laura. "Before they left, they asked if Mother would bake some more for the next Wednesday," so they could bring friends back.

     "My mother was the only baker until she was 79," said Laura, and Bertha's still uses her mother's recipes.

     The afternoon tea (by reservation only) is served Monday through Saturday, from 3-5, offering three kinds of savory pastries (instead of sandwiches), scones and assorted dessert tarts along with butter, jam and whipped cream. Laura pointed out that each region in England has its own specialty for tea. "It can be a snack or high tea with five courses on a silver service." And scones can also be as varied. Laura has 200 different scone recipes in her repertoire.

     Some of Bertha's staff has been there since they opened. Laura laughed and said that she still referred to Curtis Shipman as "the new cook," even though he's worked there for 13 years.

     "We have a different perspective," she said. "We don't have managers. We have a team concept. You find the right mix of people and these are the people you grow old with."

     Recently Bertha's has been in the news because of a lawsuit filed against them by wheelchair patrons who say that the access does not sufficiently comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Laura said it was "astonishing" to only find out that a suit was going to filed against them when a small demonstration in the square materialized.

     "We just don't know what is involved with full compliance," she said. Currently Bertha's has a ramp that is available by request. She said that she and the staff would readily make any accommodations. She also said that both of her parents were in wheelchairs during the last few years of their lives, and "they loved to come in." Thinking back over the years in the restaurant business and the changes in Fell's Point, she said, "It was fun being part of the renaissance. We go with the flow."

Bertha's Spinach, Tarragon and Garlic Butter
Laura Norris suggests this as a sauce for mussels or fish



  1. Finely chop spinach, garlic, tarragon, green onions in a food processor.
  2. Add melted butter and serve.

743 South Broadway
Baltimore, MD

Lunch from 11:30
Dining Room open till 11 pm Sunday-Thursday; till midnight Friday and Saturday
Bar closes at 2 am

Appetizers and Sandwiches: $6.95-7.95
Entrees: $11.95-19.95

Mrs. McKinnons Scottish Tea
By reservation only

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