News: The Tao of Leo Sunderman

After 52 years behind the steam table, the owner of Stenger's Cafe plans to step aside

Aug 12, 1999 at 2:06 pm
Jon Hughes/

The worn bar inside Stenger's Cafe

The steel gate rises promptly at 8 a.m. The coffee brews in a 30-year-old metal urn. Meanwhile, in the back kitchen, cook Dee Dee Yeary fixes the day's special: macaroni & cheese and breaded pork chops. Stenger's Cafe, an Over-the-Rhine landmark, is open for another day's business.

A report May 2 in the city's morning daily spoke too soon of Stenger's demise. There are no plans to close Stenger's just yet. But you better hurry down and say farewell to owner Leo Sunderman. Yes, Sunderman is planning to sell the cafe, its 11 adjoining apartments and liquor license to new owners. A local real estate company is selling the property and a deal is pending for late summer. Sunderman has no regrets about his decision.

He's certain that the time is right. After all, Sunderman, who turned 74 on June 9, has been behind the steam table for 52 years. August is a good time to step away from the steam table. Business has been slow. There's been less demand for macaroni and cheese and open-faced roast beef sandwiches during the recent heat wave.

"I have no grand plans," Sunderman says, counting out the day's change in the cafe's side room. "I mean it when I say that I just want to stay at home and sit down for a week. I've been on my feet for a long time."

In a neighborhood that has experienced drastic change, Stenger's Cafe holds tight onto its traditions. The plan is that the new owners will keep the Stenger's name and many of the core menu items. Sunderman plans on taking little with him. His only hope is that the new owners will keep his staff intact: Yeary, waitress Frances Martin and dishwasher Linda Girdler. In Leo's eyes, they also are a part of Stenger's.

Change after 52 years is bound to be a bit nerve-wracking. The word retirement really doesn't do it justice. Sunderman is literally starting a new life.

But for now, Sunderman continues to man the steam table, directing the action with his carving knife. Stenger's food is a cuisine of blue-plate specials that time forgot: sauerkraut and spare ribs on Mondays, sauerbraten on Tuesdays, fried pork chops on Thursdays and fried fish on Fridays. Open-faced roast beef and ham sandwiches every day. More importantly, everything is cooked in lard.

Stenger's Cafe is about the food. It's about the worn decor and old Hudy Gold sign hanging behind the bar. It's about the regulars who gather around the tables, their knees brushing the green-and-white tablecloths.

The steam table has been around since 1930. The cash register goes back to 1944. There is a blast of clean, white plastic courtesy of a new window unit air conditioner. Behind the bar, a white touch-tone telephone sits next to an old rotary model. Everything else comes with its own layer of dust.

Stenger's Cafe invites you to come back and lean your elbow against its worn wooden bar. Talk flows freely between its customers. Most importantly, Stenger's is about Sunderman. The restaurant revolves around his jokes. His nonstop banter. His mischievous spirit. Like some short order comedian, Sunderman keeps the punch lines flying from behind the steam table.

"Did you read in that magazine article about Hillary's affair?" Sunderman asks one customer. "What it didn't say was that it was with a 74-year-old owner of an Over-the-Rhine saloon."

Everybody who walks through the front door gets a welcome hello from Sunderman: City Hall mover-and-shaker, downtown lawyer, county judge and Over-the Rhine down-and-outer. It doesn't matter who you are. Sunderman will joke around with you like an old friend.

The apron hangs low over Sunderman's ample belly. His jowls rest across his neck. Looking at his picture from a 20-year-old newspaper article, Sunderman doesn't look all that different. He's a little heavier now. There's less hair. But his smile is still the same. He's rebounded well from recent back surgery.

Sunderman has given his life to Stenger's. It has been in his family for 65 years. In 1947, after returning home from the U.S. Navy, he joined his father-in-law John Stenger in the business. Times were different then. Over-the-Rhine was a different neighborhood. Sunderman has seen the changes. He's watched the families move away and the neighboring businesses shut down. Still, Stenger's Cafe has stayed the course offering its roast pork and sauerkraut specials. Calvin Trillin wrote about Stenger's in The New Yorker magazine. Two years ago, on the occasion of Leo's 50th anniversary, Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls presented him with a key to the city.

But now he's ready to relax at his Mount Washington home. There are games of golf to play. Grandchildren to visit.

He wants to spend time with his wife. Running Over-the-Rhine's last true saloon can take a lot out of a person. There is no doubt in his mind. It's time to sell the cafe and building.

It's time to take the banter home. ©