Clara D. Graff, 77, owner of Dundalk restaurant

August 29, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Clara D. Graff, owner of a popular Dundalk restaurant known for its shrimp salad sandwiches, crab cakes and generous slabs of apple pie, died Sunday at Ivy Hall Geriatric and Rehabilitation Center in Essex of complications from a stroke. She was 77.

Mrs. Graff, owner of Clara's Restaurant, was born in Baltimore and raised in Edgemere. The former Clara D. Amorgeanos was the daughter of Greek immigrants.

She attended Baltimore County public schools and, after the death of her father in the 1930s, took a waitress job to help support her family.

"She was a waitress all of her life," said Richard "Don" Graff, her husband of 32 years. "From 1951 to 1959, she worked at Mammy's Restaurant in Miami. She was Walter Winchell's favorite waitress, and whenever he came in, he insisted she wait on him."

After moving back to Baltimore in 1959, Mrs. Graff opened Clara's Restaurant in a North Avenue rowhouse, across from the old Polytechnic Institute building.

In 1963, she closed it and went to work as a waitress for her cousin, who owned Nick's Restaurant in Sparrows Point.

For several years after Nick's closed, she owned a Ponca Street florist shop and a boutique. In 1990, she and her husband opened Clara's Ice Cream Parlor on German Hill Road in Dundalk.

Now called Clara's Restaurant, the popular establishment -- open seven days a week -- prides itself on Mrs. Graff's recipes for old-fashioned, stick-to-the-ribs home cooking.

Although Mrs. Graff did not do the cooking, she oversaw the operation of the kitchen, making certain that each dish was up to her standards.

"The place is nothing fancy and has a cute 1950s look to it," Mr. Graff said. "It's good food at good prices. Her crab cakes would knock your socks off, and the place was known for its stuffed cabbage, country fried steak and meat loaf. Sausage and gravy over biscuits and creamed chipped beef were popular breakfasts."

From a table in the dining room, which served as both her "unofficial office" and observation post, Mrs. Graff kept an eye on the operation to make sure everything went smoothly.

In the busy, swirling atmosphere of the restaurant, she would sometimes rest her head on the table and take a quick cat nap, but she seldom missed anything of importance.

"She'd sit there greeting and thanking customers, and made sure everything was OK in the kitchen," Mr. Graff said. "She was like a yo-yo. If she thought something was wrong, she'd jump up and look in the kitchen, and then she'd go back to her table."

"Those crab cakes had her secret touch," said Sharon Jones, a waitress at Clara's since 1990. "They were her pride and joy. They weren't real spicy and had a wonderful taste to them."

Ron Matz, a reporter for WJZ-TV who occasionally dined at the restaurant, recalled Mrs. Graff's motherly concern for reporters covering the Joseph C. Palczynski homicide-hostage siege in March 2000.

"She was just a sweetheart and a lot like your mother," Mr. Matz said. "She had a heart of gold, and everybody in Dundalk knew her. She was always fussing over us. It was raining one day, and she made sure we had lots of hot soup before we headed back out into the rain."

Joseph V. D'Anna, a retired Mars Super Markets executive who has been eating at Clara's for years, is particularly fond of its scrambled eggs, scrapple and grits.

"I also liked her homemade chicken noodle soup and apple pie," Mr. D'Anna said. "She was a fine person and always very kind to her customers."

Mrs. Graff was especially fond of children, whom she loved to spoil with gifts of stuffed animals, candy and ice cream cones.

In her leisure, she enjoyed bowling, bingo and making costume jewelry.

Her first marriage ended in divorce.

Mrs. Graff was a member of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, 520 S. Ponca St., where services will be held at 11:30 a.m. today.

She also is survived by two sons, Nicholas Mamalis of Allentown, Pa., and Walter Graff of Baltimore; three daughters, Ramona Tidball of Baltimore, Diane Strongberg of Philadelphia and Rosalie Skinner of Fredericksburg, Va.; seven grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

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