Barely a trace of Mencken's favorite eateries


If H.L. Mencken, whose 122nd birthday was on Thursday, returned from the grave to his beloved Baltimore, he'd be saddened to learn that most of his favorite restaurants and watering holes are no more.

For Mencken pilgrims in search of a German restaurant where the "Sage of Baltimore" put away stunningly cold seidels of German beer while devouring plates of sauerbraten served with red cabbage and kartoffel klosse, it will be a frustrating trek. There is no such place any longer.

What's left, in some cases, are only facades such as the old Junker Hotel on Fayette Street or Haussner's sprawling complex in Highlandtown, which brought down the curtain on Baltimore's Teutonic gourmet legacy when it closed in 1999.

The fabled Schellhase's at 412 N. Howard St., a Mencken German outpost for years, went dark in 1980, just before the 100th anniversary celebration of his birth, disappointing many who had traveled to Baltimore for the festivities.

A sign in the restaurant's window told diners, "Closed for Vacation." It later re-opened as a Korean restaurant, which lasted about a decade.

Urban renewal wiped away the old Miller Brothers downtown, while the Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube on North Charles Street, where Mencken sipped beer and bought books from its owner, Siegfried Weisberger, fell to the wrecker's ball.

Mencken, who traveled to Maria's 300 on Albemarle Street in Little Italy for Italian dishes, was a longtime fan of owner Maria Allori, who created Crab Sorrento in his honor.

Mencken returned the compliment when he proclaimed Maria as "one of the five most beautiful women in the world." She died in 1974, and the restaurant became Russo's, itself now only a fragrant memory.

However, there is one survivor, Maison Marconi, now in its 82nd year and still reigning supreme at 106 W. Saratoga St.

Mencken, who referred to the restaurant as "the Marconi," came here to dine on its famed broiled lamb chops that sold for 85 cents, and court his future wife, Sara Haardt, a novelist.

While the lamb chops are still on the menu, they're no longer 85 cents.

For more than six decades, Mencken, ever the trencherman, prowled Baltimore in search of good food and drink to be shared with convivial company who shared his joy of the table.

It would be an understatement to say that Mencken enjoyed a good drink.

By his own admission, he was "ombibulous" and enjoyed all types of alcoholic beverages. He praised alcohol as being the "greatest of human inventions, and by far - much greater than Hell, the radio or the bichloride tablet."

However, his praise of Maryland Tidewater cuisine was equally reverent and unstinting, and often found its way into his Evening Sun column.

For years, until it closed in 1939 and was demolished in 1941 to make way for a parking lot, Mencken was a regular at the Hotel Rennert, a lugubrious, Teutonic-looking pile that wrapped around the southeast corner of Saratoga and Liberty streets.

He claimed both in private and in print that the Rennert's black cooks, while facile when it came to preparing "French sauces, German soups or Italian ragouts," preferred preparing the dishes that gave the hotel its national reputation as the capital of Maryland gastronomy.

"They look upon all such things with a fixed loathing; their one and only aim is to cook Maryland victuals in the Maryland manner, as well as it can be done by mortal hands," he wrote in the Evening Sun in 1923.

"How many times have I taken strangers to the Rennert for lunch and dinner! And how many times I have seen them melt and sob over a plate of Chesapeake shad-roe with bacon, or a fragrant mess of jowl and sprouts, or an oyster pot-pie, or a platter of boiled turkey with oyster sauce (it is to the common roast turkey of the United States as Rodolfo Valentino is to Cal Coolidge), or a slice of Virginia ham with new cabbage, or a large tray of fried chicken with corn cakes ... "

Mencken was partial to Schell- hase's, run by C.H. Otto Schell- hase, first on Franklin Street and later on Howard Street. It became the home of the Saturday Night Club, which met there to dine and play music until disbanding in 1950 due to the death of its elderly members.

The restaurant became a late-night refuge for writers, doctors, musicians, newspapermen and theatrical notables, who played the nearby Ford's, Maryland and Auditorium theaters.

The club met in a backroom, which vanished when the restaurant was re-decorated in the 1960s. Members drank from glass mugs engraved with their names; visitors could use one engraved "Deadhead."

The walls of the restaurant were lined with framed autographed photographs of screen and literary luminaries of the 1920s and '30s.

Mencken was so enamored of the place that it wasn't uncommon for him to bring in publisher Alfred Knopf, screen siren Ruth Chatterton or Edgar Lee Masters, author of The Spoon River Anthology.

It was probably the closest thing Baltimore ever had to an Algonquin-style roundtable, where literary types matched wits over steaming plates of food.

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