Rose M. Cernak, longtime owner of Obrycki's, the East Baltimore bar and crab house whose crab seasoning and jumbo crab cakes earned it undying loyalty from locals as well as actors, sports figures and politicians, died Sunday of cancer at her HarborView condominium.
She was 79.
Rose Marani, the daughter of an Italian immigrant and first-generation American, was born in Baltimore and raised in Canton in a Potomac Street rowhouse.
After graduating in 1948 from the old Patterson Park High School, Mrs. Cernak entered Strayer's Business College.
After her graduation from the business school, she worked as office manager for Lawrence Construction Co., leaving in the 1950s to raise her family.
In 1950, she married Richard M. Cernak, who owned the Richard Cernak Corp., a construction company.
Mrs. Cernak returned to work in 1976 after she and her husband purchased Ed Obrycki's Olde Crab House, then housed in two rowhouses at East Pratt and Regester streets, from its longtime owner, Edward Obrycki.
"They used to go there all the time, and they'd tell Mr. Obrycki, 'If you ever think about selling, let us know,'" said a son, Robert M. "Rob" Cernak, who lives in Idlewylde and now operates the family business with his brother and two sisters.
"They went there, sat at a table, and he asked them each to write down on a piece of paper their offer. They both wrote down the same price, and he accepted," Mr. Cernak said.
Along with the restaurant's physical plant and stellar reputation among fans of steamed crabs came the secret crab seasoning that had been perfected by Mr. Obrycki and his three brothers, Joseph, Mitchell and Henry.
"Legend has it that they used so much black pepper (never red pepper or Old Bay), salt and dry mustard in their crab seasoning that executives of the McCormick spice company visited the place and used their savvy in the food business to alert Craig Claiborne, food critic of The New York Times," wrote Baltimore Sun reporter Jacques Kelly in 2000. "Claiborne made numerous visits to Pratt Street and raved about the crabs he so enjoyed."
Other celebrities who have whacked a crab mallet through a pile of perfectly steamed crabs at Obrycki's through the years included Danny DeVito, Bette Midler, Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman.
"Her favorites were Danny DeVito and Neil Diamond," her son said. "Neil Diamond kissed her once, and she talked about it forever."
Mrs. Cernak, who was an excellent cook in her own right, added a few of her favorite dishes to the restaurant's menu.
"She added seafood cioppino, which is a seafood stew, and spaghetti with crabs. She'd clean crabs and cook them in sauce for six to eight hours," her son said.
"We used to have spaghetti with crabs at home on Christmas Eve. But it didn't go over too well with the customers who wanted just steamed crabs, and we later took it off the menu."
Mrs. Cernak worked the "front of the house," her son said, while her husband worked the rear of the restaurant overseeing food preparation.
"What she brought to it was her personality. She made our guests feel welcome, and people enjoyed being around her. She made them feel special and knew their names. Many later became close friends," her son said.
"I loved the restaurant and its crab seasoning. It is one of the best restaurants anywhere, and I always enjoyed going there," 1st Mariner Bank CEO and Chairman Ed Hale said Monday. "Rose was the driving force in the business and very sharp and very socially connected."
Her husband retired in 1995, and Mrs. Cernak retired two years later.
Mrs. Cernak's business acumen earned her directorships at two banks, including being the first woman to serve on the board of the Bank of Baltimore.
"When I had Bank of Baltimore, I put her on the board, and when I established 1st Mariner, I brought her to our board, where she served until she retired at 75," Mr. Hale said.
The former Idlewylde resident had lived in Bowleys Quarters in Baltimore County for many years before moving to HarborView in 2003.
Her charitable interests including serving as chairman of Daffodil Days, which supports cancer research, and United Cerebral Palsy.
Fluent in Italian and Spanish, Mrs. Cernak enjoyed traveling but was not too fond of flying, family members said.
"She rode a camel in Morocco, sailed the Panama Canal, danced the flamenco in Spain and walked on a glacier in Alaska," her son said.
She also took many trips to Tuscany, where she visited her many relatives, and liked spending time at a second home in Ocean City.
Mrs. Cernak was a longtime communicant of St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church, 6428 York Road in Rodgers Forge, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Wednesday.
In addition to her husband and son, Mrs. Cernak is survived by another son, Richard M. "Rick" Cernak of Chase; two daughters, Cynthia "Cindy" Bacon of Glen Arm and Cheri Cernak of Canton; a brother, Albert Marani of Middle River; a sister, Sandy Marani of Baltimore; and four grandchildren.