The pair always served a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but they didn't think to include sauerkraut when they first opened in 1966, said Nickolas, who is of Greek ancestry.
However, so many customers asked for the stuff during the holidays that the couple added it to the Thanksgiving menu and served it that day for more than 40 years — with bacon or sausage, with applesauce, with grated onion and carrots and even, at times, with ginger ale for "a kind of champagne taste."
Now retired, the Baltimore natives became converts long ago.
"You have the sweetness of the sweet potatoes, then you add the sauerkraut, which is a little tart. Then you add the turkey and country gravy, and it just becomes a nice combination," said Antonas, adding that he'll be whipping up a batch for the holiday meal at their Rosedale home.
Local residents of a certain age well remember versions of the lengthy pickling procedure. Marc Attman, who owns Attman's Delicatessen, said that when he was a boy, his father, Seymour, and uncles would pack hundreds of pounds of cabbage in wooden barrels and roll them up and down Lombard St. to agitate the contents.
Half a century or so ago, he said, the deli usually got sizable advance orders of the stuff as Thanksgiving loomed.
Today they're one of the few establishments in Baltimore that still cure their own sauerkraut. Most restaurants, like most consumers, rely on the packaged variety, which is more convenient but also offers much less flavor and texture, gourmands say.
Most of the deli's kraut, though, goes on sandwiches these days, making it a steadily popular condiment year-round. "For us it's like salt and pepper," Attman said.
Attman's does offer a day-after specialty, the Double T (Thanksgiving turkey) sandwich that features turkey, cranberry sauce and sauerkraut on pumpernickel.
Many locals tell stories of grandparents making batches of sauerkraut in the family basement in the weeks before Thanksgiving, creating an aroma that became associated in their minds with the holiday's comforting feel.
John Shields, a Baltimore native who grew up to become the proprietor and chef at Gertrude's restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art, speaks of his late grandmother Gertrude Cleary, who made a batch every year in the cellar of her rowhouse near St. Ann's Catholic Church on East 22nd Street.
The tradition meant so much to him, he told a Baltimore Sun reporter in 2007, that it sparked the idea of creating Kraut Fest, a celebration the restaurant will hold this January for the 10th straight year.
Restaurant staffers begin their work a few days before Thanksgiving, working in the basement to quarter, core and shred 300 pounds of white cabbage. They pack it into several sanitized, industrial-sized trash cans, add salt (three tablespoons for every five pounds of cabbage) to allow for extraction of water, and oversee a six- to eight-week fermenting process.
Doug Wetzel, the executive chef at Gertrude's, has become something of a keeper of the custom's flame.
He now oversees the restaurant's kraut-curing process and speaks lovingly of each step. They fill jars of water to weigh the kraut down inside the barrels. They lift the lids every two days to spoon bacteria-laden foam from the surface.
After several years at the helm, he has developed a routine: Wetzel, 30, transports the cans to the high-ceilinged basement of his early 20th-century single-family home in Brooklyn Park. There, he places the equipment near a vent (aromas start wafting from the containers within a couple of weeks) and lets it all sit in temperatures that are usually 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the outside.
The stuff is stewing there now, in fact — and even as it continues fermenting today, Wetzel and his wife will serve their Thanksgiving guests a separate batch of kraut.
"I love [sauerkraut] with turkey now. The flavor takes the edge off the [turkey] taste. It has to be there on the table or I get very upset," Wetzel said.
As early as 1907, an unnamed Baltimore Sun reporter waxed poetic about the kraut-and-turkey blend.
"Of all the multitude of duties that confront a public journal," he wrote, "none is more genuinely pleasant than that of noting, each autumn, the reappearance of sauerkraut upon the tables of the great plain people. … It is the first course in that gastronomic saturnalia which reaches a climax or culmination in roast turkey."