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Charles E. 'Chuck' Doering, founder of popular bars John Steven Ltd. and Penny Black in Fells Point, dies

Charles E. “Chuck” Doering, a popular Fells Point publican and artist who incorporated his personal art collection into the decor of John Steven Ltd., his Thames Street bar-restaurant, died Friday from pancreatic cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. He was 74.

“Chuck was a bird and extremely eccentric,” said Allison Dugdale, who was chef at John Steven Ltd. from 1991 to 2000 and a next-door neighbor. “He didn’t know anything about running a restaurant, but he let me do my thing.”

Ms. Dugdale said Mr. Doering assembled “an amazing group of people, artists, writers, teachers and others. Chuck’s role was that of grand pooh-bah who sat at a table in the bar, holding court. That was Big Chuck.”

Lisa Eney Robinson began working at John Steven Ltd. as a bartender in the early 1980s and ended up managing the business.

“It was very exciting being a part of it. We had customers from around the world as well as a strong local following and tourists,” said Ms. Robinson, who now lives in Delhi, N.Y. “The place attracted amazing people for years. For instance, the ‘Homicide’ crew were regulars.”

“I had three boyfriends during the 1980s whom I met at John Steven — and I married the last one,” she said. “It was my favorite place to work in my life. His death is a tremendous loss for Fells Point.”

Charles Edward Doering was born in Baltimore and raised in Linthicum Heights and Bryn Athyn, Pa. He was the son of George C. Doering, senior general attorney for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and Janet Heilman Doering, a homemaker.

He was a graduate of the General Church of New Jerusalem High School and College in Bryn Athyn, and obtained a degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Rhinehart School of Sculpture in 1968.

Mr. Doering was an expert marksman. He was drafted into the Army in 1968 and served with an infantry unit in Vietnam for a year. He was wounded, but declined a Purple Heart “because he thought others were more worthy,” said his wife of 33 years, the former Melissa Anne Plouffe.

After being discharged, he returned to Baltimore and worked as a welder at Bethlehem Steel. He also worked with special-needs children, and taught art at various schools, including City College from 1971 to 1977.

“City College was very important to him. He considered it a big deal,” his wife said. She said former students often returned to talk with him, and “he also maintained lifelong friendships with colleagues he met while teaching there.”

In 1976, he purchased Zeppi’s Five Point Tavern, at 1800 Thames St. in Fells Point, which he renamed John Steven Ltd. — after his son Matthew’s teddy bear. It later became known colloquially as “John Stevens.”

Its owner could be seen often roller skating around the Inner Harbor, propelled by a sail.

Mr. Doering, an expert woodworker as well as a sculptor, created a Colonial-style bar and later added a separate dining room with a wood-burning fireplace and creaking wide-plank floors.

“You’re as likely to hear Mahler as Billie Holiday on the stereo behind the bar,” wrote a Baltimore Sun columnist in 1981. “But the old pool table is still there, the decor remains authentic, and the place is still rich both in character and characters.”

“It was a multicultural place and Chuck set the tone,” Ms. Robinson said.

“Chuck created a romantic atmosphere by painting the interior rich, dark colors, installing antique chandeliers, filling the place with art and playing classical and jazz music,” Ms. Doering wrote in a biographical profile of her husband. “It is impossible to count how many people have come back over the years and told Chuck they had their first date with their spouse there, and they come back to celebrate anniversaries.”

Mr. Doering refused to have TVs in his bar, preferring that guests get to know and talk to one another instead of trying to talk over a televised sporting event, movie or news report.

“Nobody thought he’d make it,” his wife wrote. “Eventually ‘John Stevens’ was a regular stop for artists, writers, reporters, doctors, longshoreman, celebrities, mechanics and the usual cast of Fells Point characters; folks from every walk of life.”

In the years before Mr. Doering added a real, functioning kitchen, John Steven Ltd. served a signature pot of seafood such as steamed shrimp, mussels, clams, crab cakes and scallops, prepared on two hot plates behind the bar.

Mr. Doering boasted that he went through two hot plates a week before finally installing a kitchen.

In the 1980s Ed Heintz, a neighbor, arrived with a tray of sushi he had prepared for a dinner party that had been canceled. He wondered if Mr. Doering would give it away to customers, but it proved so popular that Mr. Heintz suggested creating a sushi bar in the corner — which he presided over for years.

“It became the first non-Asian restaurant in the city to serve sushi,” Ms. Doering said.

Tony Norris, who with his wife, Laura, opened Bertha’s Mussels in Fells Point in 1972, noted that “Chuck met his wife at Bertha’s, where she was a bartender.”

“Chuck was a good neighbor,” Mr. Norris said. “He was a good guy and very even-tempered and steady.”

Mr. Doering launched an expansion in 1992 after he sold Six Pence, commonly known as the Dead Rabbit, a small Bank Street tavern he and his wife also owned. They purchased a building next to John Steven Ltd. and added a kitchen, small dining room overlooking the harbor and an outdoor patio, with Mr. Doering doing much of the work himself.

Jeff Cahill, owner of Bar Liquorice on East Fort Avenue, worked for Mr. Doering as a waiter and a manager and said his boss “was like a de facto dad to me. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Chuck Doering.”

”We who worked for him were all one big family and he was responsible for that,” he said. “When I left, he gave me artwork. He made such an impact on my life.”

The couple remained owners of the building, though they rented the business to a new operator, who closed it in 2014.

For nearly a decade, Mr. Doering served as a roadie for a band, Eliza Doering and the Penny Black, that included his son John and daughter Eliza. He drove them to clubs up and down the East Coast.

He and his wife reclaimed the bar-restaurant and reopened it in 2015 as the Penny Black — the name stems from Mr. Doering’s love of stamp collecting, and refers to the first adhesive postage stamp, from about 1840, which featured a profile of Britain’s Queen Victoria.

The couple lived upstairs over the bar-restaurant, and their two children operate the business.

Ms. Robinson said she organizes four or five reunions a year for John Steven alumni. One was held several weeks ago, and Mr. Doering attended.

“He was coming downstairs for about 20 minutes a day, but when we had the reunion, he stayed for almost five hours,” she said.

In addition to fly fishing, collecting and creating art and studying piano, ballet, German and Japanese, Mr. Doering was an ardent student of the works of Emmanuel Swedenborg and enjoyed discussing his theology and philosophy.

He was a longtime, active member of Alcoholics Anonymous and reached out to others struggling with alcoholism, his wife said.

Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, John Christopher Doering of Fells Point and Matthew Charles Doering of Easton; two daughters, Eliza Caroline Doering of Fells Point and Cera Rubello of Baltimore; a brother, Kent Doering of Munich, Germany; three sisters, Janna Zuber of Mitchellville, Greta Davidson of La Crescenta, Calif., and Karen DeLue of Petaluma, Calif; and seven grandchildren. Another son, Gregory Doering, died in infancy. An earlier marriage to Ann Marie Vytell ended in divorce.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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