Eager House comes back to life


February 11, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Ernest L. Murphy has flown all over the world for more than a decade, working under U.S. government contracts to launch economic development missions in Third World countries. He has spread the word about disease prevention in Togo, pesticide use in Zaire and crop management in Cameroon.

But over the past 10 months, he says, the site of his most ambitious economic development mission has been Baltimore. As a sideline to his Washington-based consulting firm, he just reopened the Eager House restaurant, one of midtown's most popular gathering spots from the late 1940s to the early 1980s.

"Want to know how to make a small fortune?" Mr. Murphy asked restaurant patrons as they arrived for dinner during one of two preview nights last week. "Start with a large fortune, and invest in a restaurant!"

The gregarious Mr. Murphy -- known to many simply as "Murph" -- figures he spent close to $800,000 to buy and rejuvenate the two-building complex at 15 W. Eager St. in Mount Vernon. He also owns the old Gaslamp Club at 917 Cathedral St. and plans to reopen that by spring.

The Eager House buildings date to the turn of the century. One contained an ice cream plant, the other was a garage. The original Eager House was opened in 1947 by Bill Tutton, a Baltimore lawyer. (Mr. Tutton, 75, still practices law as a trial attorney in the state attorney general's office.)

Mr. Tutton ran the Eager House until 1975, when he sold it to a group that included Oscar Camp, Lou Nichols and Alfred Werner. They and their successors kept the restaurant open until the early 1980s, when another group converted it to a short-lived disco. It has been closed for the past seven years.

As redesigned by Henry Johnson and Bob Berman of Johnson/Berman, the Eager House combines old and new. "The concept was that it be an old-fashioned, neighborhood restaurant with a '90s twist," Mr. Johnson said.

Some spaces have been preserved, such as the back dining room known as the Crow's Nest, whose oak paneling suggests a ship's interior. Others are completely different, including a terraced cabaret with a small stage. The artworks -- watercolors of city socialites, collages of country life, banners evoking cabaret music -- are by Mr. Johnson's 20-year-old daughter, Amanda.

The menu has changed with the times. Once known for charcoal steaks, lobster and a lengthy wine list, the Eager House now has an eclectic cuisine, with "heart-friendly" foods, light fare, vegetarian and regional American dishes.

A Birmingham, Ala., native who lives in Columbia, Mr. Murphy was educated at Morehouse College and Harvard University, where he received a doctorate in economics. He moved to Maryland in 1970, when he became an economics professor at the University of Maryland.

In 1980, he founded Development Assistance Corp., which aids developing countries. A self-described risk-taker, he says he launched his restaurant because he was looking for "something romantic and different from the boring work I do."

The Eager House seems to have struck a chord with old-timers who lament the closing of Danny's and the Chesapeake Restaurant. Mr. Murphy wants to win over their children, too.

"We want the Eager House to be that place where you can leave your problems at the doorstep and come in and we'll spoil you," he said. "We know things have been rough lately. But, hey, if you can buy a dollar's worth of happiness, I think that's a good investment."

So far the restaurant has attracted a diverse clientele, and Mr. Murphy hopes it stays that way. As soon as one landmark is saved, it seems another runs into trouble. The same week that Eager House reopened, the historic Hansa Haus at Charles and Redwood streets lost its lead tenant when the Tres Bon cafe chain shut down.

Attman Properties, leasing manager, is working with Tres Bon's owners and fielding other inquiries in an effort to find a retailer for the 1911 Germanic-style building, previously occupied by W. Bell & Co.

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