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Beyond Bertha's mussels

It's a great marketing ploy. You print up a bunch of bumper stickers that say "Eat Bertha's Mussels," and you actually get people to put them on their cars. Not relatives of the owners. Random people.

Note that the bumper stickers don't say "Bertha's Mussels Are Good." They simply tell you to eat them. And people do. Suddenly Bertha's Dining Room, a Fells Point bar, is known for its mussels all over the city, maybe the state. People flock to Bertha's for its mussels.

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Bertha's serves the specialty of the house with eight different sauces, ranging from melted butter to an anchovy, tomato and garlic butter.

So are Bertha's mussels worth all the hoopla? The ones I had were plump and very fresh, and there were plenty of them. Their Spanish sauce, made of tomatoes, green peppers and onions, was spicy; but if it isn't spicy enough for you, a container of hot sauce comes on the side. Now the bad news: They were so gritty you could rebuild Ocean City's beaches with them.

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So maybe you want something other than mussels. How about shrimp broiled with honey and lemon, or chicken with kumquats and peanuts? Bertha's charm has always been that what it does is unique -- there's nothing else like Bertha's in Baltimore. You can, for instance, have Mrs. McKinnon's Scottish afternoon tea every day but Sunday. I venture to say it's the only place where you can get a Scottish tea (savories, scones and dessert tarts) and arroz con pollo or paella.

Bertha's paella for one comes in a small cast iron skillet, with lots of rice, a very little saffron (it costs 75 cents extra), chicken, scallops, shrimp, Spanish sausage and gritty mussels. It's a bit dry, but not bad.

Don't expect a lot of subtlety here, or much attention to how food looks. A cup of spicy crab soup tasted fine, but so much was slopped over the cup and into the saucer there was practically a second serving.

It would have taken some serious work to make the saged chicken liver appetizer beautiful, but I'm not sure it has to look like a pile of mud on top of toast. (It tasted pretty good, though, if you love sage.)

Bertha's makes its own desserts. In an era when restaurant desserts are usually fairly predictable, here you'll find coconut-damson plum tart, seasonal mince pie, lemon chess pie and Scottish trifle. That last involved too much brandy for my taste; but the combination of cake, custard, fruit and whipped cream is appealing. The recipes for it, many of the other desserts and the tea pastries come from Scotland by way of the owner's mother-in-law.

Bertha's

Where: Broadway and Lancaster Street

Hours: Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., except midnight Friday and Saturday. Closed on major holidays (including Memorial Day)

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Credit cards accepted: MC, V

Features: Mussels, seafood

Non-smoking section? Yes

Call: (410) 327-5795

Prices: Appetizers, $6.20; entrees, $7.50-$19.25

** 1/2


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