Locust Point tavern owner esteemed for her crab cakes

Estelle Klemkowski 1905-2007

February 01, 2007|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun reporter

Estelle Klemkowski aimed for the same perfection in a crab cake that she did in her tightly coiffed hair, makeup, attire and shoes. For the past 75 years, her strictly Baltimore-style crab cakes, light on the filler and heavy on crab meat, have been regarded by seafood lovers as the pinnacle of local tavern fare.

Known as Miss Stell, she was the Cadillac-driving matriarch of a South Baltimore family -- she leaves 85 direct descendants -- and was a fixture at the bar and nearby restaurant blocks from Fort McHenry that she ran first with her husband and later with a son.

Mrs. Klemkowski died of complications from old age Tuesday at the Wesley Home. She was 101.

"Miss Estelle will be missed," said Del. Brian K. McHale, a Baltimore Democrat born and raised in Locust Point. "She was an inspiration. She never gave up and was still preparing meals for the seniors at the churches until very recently. Her St. Patrick's Day corned beef and cabbage was as legendary as her crab cake."

"She was an extraordinary woman with an elegant air who was an unbelievable natural cook and ran an establishment that everyone here enjoyed," said Joyce Bauerle, former president of the Locust Point Civic Association.

"She was a tremendous cook. Period," said grandson Billy Klemkowski, who uses his grandmother's recipe daily at the busy seafood restaurants he owns and operates in Rehoboth Beach, Del. He credited her recipe as the reason for the nightly lines in season at his two restaurants.

"Everything she made was delicious," her grandson said. "But it was her great style, too. Only two years ago, she was in here in those high heels, drinking a straight-up Manhattan and eating a whole fried seafood platter."

Estelle Drymala was born April 20, 1905, on Shakespeare Street in Fells Point, the sixth of nine siblings. She was an eighth-grade graduate of St. Stanislaus parochial school and later took night school courses.

"She was reared in a religious family and always reminisced about her happy childhood," said a son, Henry W. Klemkowski of Baltimore. "She was always perky and independent. And she made the best sour beef and dumplings you ever tasted."

In 1923, she met Henry P. Klemkowski, who lived in South Baltimore. They soon married and set up a Brooklyn Park grocery store, living upstairs. Although the business failed in the Depression of the 1930s -- their customers were unable to pay bills -- she and her husband tried a second venture.

In 1933, as Prohibition ended, the Klemkowskis secured a liquor license for a tavern they opened on Fort Avenue at Woodall Street.

"Henry's was a great gathering place for many of the waterfront people," said former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a former maritime editor of The Sun. "The Klemkowski hospitality was well-known throughout Locust Point and by those who worked along the harbor."

She had the recipe -- and her husband mixed the crab. Her crab cake was flat and oval-shaped, and first sold for a dime -- or 15 cents with a beer. She piled about 20 at a time, pyramid style, under a glass dome on the bar.

"It was not a ball, like you see now," Hope Marston, a Locust Point friend for 70 years, said of the crab cake's shape.

Mrs. Klemkowski dressed the part of the restaurateur. Family members said she frequently visited New York to view current fashions. She also traveled to Poland, where relatives lived, and Italy from where she once sent home about 15 crates of furnishings to decorate her businesses and home.

As the fame of Henry's Bar spread along the South Baltimore waterfront, she opened the French Quarter restaurant, also on Fort Avenue. She dressed her barmaids and waitresses in frilly costumes.

"She ran the places with a firm hand. If patrons were getting out of hand, or were a bit unruly, she would invite them to leave. She was a little less liberal than her husband or sons in the behavior department," said James P. Flynn, a former Locust Point resident who directs a University of Delaware graduate program on public policy.

Mrs. Klemkowski also enjoyed entertaining at her home.

"Her tables were exquisite, with silver and the best china. She liked everything just right. And her kitchen was spotless, at all times," Mrs. Marston said.

"She was immaculate in her taste. She was always stylish," Mrs. Marston said. "She never had a hair out of place. And at 101, she still had pretty skin, although you never, never knew her age. She guarded it like that crab cake recipe."

In 1967, Mrs. Klemkowski stepped down from daily restaurant work and turned Henry's over to a son, Jerome "Gerry" Klemkowski, who now lives in Ocean City. He sold the Fort Avenue bar several years ago, and it is now operated as the restaurant Nasu Blanca.

Mrs. Klemkowski would, on occasion, reveal her crab cake recipe -- but only to family members engaged in the restaurant business.

In retirement, Mrs. Klemkowski volunteered at St. Elizabeth's School for Special Education and with the Mercy Hospital Auxiliary.

She volunteered at Locust Point social events, usually held at Christ Evangelical and Reformed Church, known locally as the German church. "She came dressed in her heels and fine dresses to pick crab meat, and peel and dice potatoes," Mrs. Marston said.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. Saturday at Our Lady of Good Counsel Roman Catholic Church, 1532 E. Fort Ave., where she was a member.

In addition to her two sons and grandson, survivors include a daughter, Lenni Anthony of Baltimore; 20 other grandchildren; 41 great-grandchildren; and 20 great-great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 1980. A son, William Irvin Klemkowski, died in 1989, and another son, Eugene Klemkowski Sr., died in 2004.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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