A fading taste of old Baltimore




The death last month of restaurateur Otto E. Schellhase, who had owned and operated the Howard Street restaurant by the same name for 45 years, underscored Baltimore's fading German culinary presence.

Just recently, a friend of mine was lamenting the fact that Baltimore is bereft of German restaurants, and locating a German deli isn't all that easy, either.

And trying to plan an Oktoberfest party - while locating oceans of German beer was no problem - my friend's son had to scurry around until finally tracking down suitable supplies of bratwurst and winekraut at Mueller's Delicatessen on Harford Road.

And while German cuisine has never been adored by mainstream food critics or prepared by cable Food Network chefs, there certainly is an underground element that still secretly craves it.

According to my colleague Jacques Kelly, some 700 pounds of sauerbraten with kartoffel klosse, prepared by volunteers at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic Church in Highlandtown, vanished in a two-day whirlwind last week into the stomachs of the happy.

It's hard to imagine today that apart from the Anglo-Saxons, the Germans constituted the city's most prominent European ethnic group from 1840 to 1914. Once their restaurants, bakeries, beer gardens, butcher shops, candy stores and market stalls were common sights.

One German immigrant who arrived during Baltimore's Teutonic Golden Age was Schellhase's father, C.H. Otto Schellhase, who settled in the city in 1906. In 1924, he established Schellhase's at the corner of Howard and Franklin streets.

His restaurant became a popular destination for downtown shoppers, writers, doctors, musicians, late-working newspapermen and actors who had wrapped up performances at nearby Ford's, Maryland and Auditorium theaters.

Such celebrities as critic Alexander Woollcott, publisher Alfred A. Knopf, writers Sinclair Lewis, Joseph Hergesheimer, Edgar Lee Masters, and actor Walter Houston enjoyed its quiet elegance and hearty cuisine.

Schellhase's proved so popular that it was forced to move in 1935 to larger quarters at 412 N. Howard St.

One of its earliest and most faithful boosters was H.L. Mencken, whose Saturday Night Club abandoned the Rennert Hotel in the 1930s for a private back room at Schellhase's where they played music, drank beer, and snacked on bowls of pretzels and specially prepared beef tartare.

A guest, praising the tartare's richness, inquired of its origin, and after hearing Mencken's explanation, turned slightly bilious.

"We are on good terms with the pathology department at the Johns Hopkins Hospital," Mencken deadpanned, as the guest slowly lowered a cracker laden with the delicacy from his mouth back to his plate.

Schellhase joined his parents in the restaurant's operation after graduating from Polytechnic Institute in 1935, and after his father's death in 1954, took over its operation with his mother.

Otto was eventually joined in the business by his wife, the former Frieda Gause, whom he married in 1941, as the very efficient and welcoming hostess who seated guests.

The best thing about Schellhase's was its resistance to change. I had my first meal there in 1970, and outside of remodeling that wiped away the restaurant of Mencken's era, much remained.

The same bentwood chairs that had accommodated generations of derrieres, and tables covered in crisply ironed white table cloths were still in daily use.

The pewter-lidded beer mugs with member's engraved names, once the property of the Saturday Night Club, which disbanded in 1950, lined a back wall. Agrarian paintings that recalled the German homeland were on the walls.

The best thing: Chef Jimmy Wilson, who had been there for decades, was still preparing vats of aromatic sauerbraten, red cabbage, and plates of wiener schnitzel a la Holstein.

Waitress Edna Wilson - who bore a strong resemblance to actress Hermione Gingold both physically and in personality - was joined in her work by the equally personable Marie Martin, who had been there since the early 1940s.

Otto was the restaurant's bartender and competently mixed up and delivered Manhattans and martinis while drawing seidels of chilled beer with just a whisper of head.

"Otto had a wonderful outgoing personality. He was the kind of man who couldn't walk by someone without stopping and speaking to them," his wife said the other day.

Even though there was no lowering of standards, the clock was ticking.

The crowds at night vanished as downtown changed and the restaurant's upper Howard Street location increasingly made it an outpost. While the faithful still trooped there for lunch, the dinner crowd began to slowly disappear.

"Schellhase's hasn't been fashionable or trendy since the 1960s, but its very persistence in style made it stand apart from its peers," wrote a Sun reporter in 1980. "The Germans call this quality echt - true, staunchly genuine."

In 1980, the same week that Harborplace opened, Otto decided to close the place after his annual two-week vacation in Ocean City.


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