Recalling the wonders of Munder's

Baltimore Glimpses

February 16, 1993|By Gilbert Sandler

EVELYN Munder Owen paid her last visit to the old family business on a July day in 1990.

She drove down Harford Road from her home in Bel Air until she got to 4536, a two-level, beige building on the corner of Grindon Avenue and Harford Road. The building had a small sign on it that read, "Haven," the center for adults with chronic mental illness that now occupies 4536. But Ms. Owen was not seeing Haven at all; she is the granddaughter of John Munder and the daughter of John Munder Jr. and Henrietta Munder, and what she was seeing was Munder's Restaurant and as many as 300 people having dinner.

Munder's was a landmark at this Northeast Baltimore location for 50 years, from 1912 to 1962. Grandfather John Munder, who at the turn of the century had a restaurant on Calvert Street opposite Mercy Hospital and who served meals to the firemen working to put out the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, opened his Harford Road restaurant in 1912 as a saloon. The family closed it, at least officially, during Prohibition. But like many of the taverns in America, Munder's went underground. The place became a food store (with a bar for those who knew how to find it).

But when repeal came in 1932, Munder opened his restaurant once again. This time he had the help of his wife, Henrietta, who, Baltimoreans would soon discover, made some of the best crab cakes in the world. Word spread. Munder's became one of Baltimore's most popular restaurants. "We were serving as many people in any given week as Miller Brothers downtown," Ms. Owen remembers. "I ought to know. I saw it all happen. I was born and raised at the restaurant. One of my fondest memories of living in a house that was part restaurant is of running off the day's menu on a ditto machine before I went off to school. I always got to Eastern High with traces of ink on my fingers. And as a little girl I can remember that my mother served us capers as part of certain dishes at our dinner. When I told my friends about capers, they didn't know what I was talking about; they had never heard of capers in my Harford Road neighborhood."

Munder's was not only famous for its crab cakes. It served sour beef and dumplings and seafood dishes. It had its own baker.

"And there were always luncheon and dinner meetings downstairs in our Grotto Room -- the Lions, the Kiwanis, the various neighborhood associations. I grew up with all of that, right in the same house," Ms. Owen remembers.

In 1960 John Munder Jr. died, and Henrietta tried to keep things going. "But her heart wasn't in it," Ms. Owen says. "She just didn't want to go it alone. So in 1962 the Munder family sold the restaurant. Several manifestations later it was a mental health center.

Elaine Snyder, program director of Haven, says her staff talked often about Ms. Owen's visit. "We had all heard so much about Munder's Restaurant being here before us," she says, "that when one of the Munder family actually showed, we were thrilled. It must have been a wonderful restaurant for so many people to have remembered it so well."

As for Ms. Owen, "It was a mistake to go back. Everything was changed, moved, rearranged, covered over. I had walked through that old place in my memory many times, and now that I was walking through for real, it was like walking through a graveyard."

The "1912" high on the cornice is still there -- just enough to remind old-timers of the glory days of Munder's, out Harford Road.

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