Why I Bring My 3-Year-Old to a Rowdy German Beer Hall Inside a Mall
Mr. Dunderbak’s in suburban South Florida reminds me of the magic of belonging
Welcome to I Fucking Love This Restaurant, a column focused on favorites from around the country that have been around awhile.
When we walked inside Mr. Dunderbak’s last December, it was loud as hell. A group of perma-grinned and beery-eyed men was huddled around five haphazardly arranged square tables downing boots of lager in the rear dining area — the only place in the packed bar and restaurant where we could find a seat. I was with my wife, Amy, and our 3-year-old daughter, Sylvia. And the place seemed anything but family-friendly.
After Amy ordered a glass of wine, and I asked for my go-to pint of Michelob Amber Bock, I wondered if the unruly scene was too much for Sylvia — though, given her gusty demeanor, I’m pretty sure she’ll be able to drink these guys under the table a la Karen Allen in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” someday. (A dad can dream, can’t he?)
Just as I was about to chug my beer, grab the check, and cart us all off to the nearest Panera, one of the drunk guys stumbled over to our table, knelt down beside Sylvia, and showed her how to make the straw-wrapper of her apple juice curl up like a spooked worm by pouring water on it. “Pretty cool, right?” the drunken man asked. Sylvia smiled, and my faith in humanity, drunken Florida men — and Mr. Dunderbak’s — was restored.
I’ve made a ritual of eating at Dunderbak’s whenever I visit my mother, who lives in nearby New Smyrna Beach. But, if you’ve never been there, let me be the first to say that it has a lot of things going against it. Most notably, it’s in a mall — a dated mall; a “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” mall, where all the old Spicolis are now 60 and as bitter as Mr. Hand.
Still, it’s a restaurant I can’t help but love. It’s a portal from the pastel, fluorescent-lit Volusia County, Florida, mall to a cozy, albeit chaotic, 19th-century German-style beer hall. Walk in and you’ll find a deli case on the left selling everything from turkey to headcheese. On the right, there’s a long bar where regulars grumble about sports and politics and marriages and sadness.
And yes, Mr. Dunderbak’s is German. Well, sort of German. They serve Jägerschnitzel and potato pancakes, bockwurst and bratwurst. But most of the fare is a traditional American sports bar blend of chili cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches; onion rings and French fries. In the decade or so since I started coming here, I’ve always ordered the same thing: The Black Russian — a combo of boiled ham and turkey topped with Swiss, lettuce, tomato, and Thousand Island dressing set between two serviceable slices of pumpernickel — with a side of potato pancakes and a pretzel to start. No, it’s not Katz’s good, not Zingerman’s good, not Turkey and the Wolf good. But it’s the kind of good that when the waitress comes over and asks, “So, how’s everything is tasting today?” I can give her a thumbs-up as I wipe Thousand Island dressing from my mouth and actually mean it.
Anyway, Dunderbak’s isn’t really about the food. It’s more about the shopping-mall miracle it delivers — one that transports you from the American malaise of calendar kiosks and abandoned Sears stores to a Disney-ride room festooned with red and yellow bunting and hand-woven baskets that hang from the ceiling.
There are shelves packed with everything from Twinning’s tea and Vlasic pickles to chocolate soccer balls and jars of Swedish fish. It reminds me of the Swiss Colony stores I used to pop into when I was a teenager craving a sample of toothpicked cheese or a whiskey-flavored hard candy. The kind of place that makes you feel like you’ve entered into a new dimension where all the pleasures of a gourmet market can be discovered between a Foot Locker and an Orange Julius.
Like Swiss Colony, Dunderbak’s was once a chain with dozens of franchises — officially known as Mr. Dunderbak’s Old World Deli and Cafe — that ran from New Jersey to Florida from the late 1960s until the early 1990s. Though several of the locations broke free of their chains and hung on as privately owned restaurants, the one in the Volusia Mall — just across the highway from the Daytona International Speedway — is one of the last surviving Mr. Dunderbak’s.
The first Dunderbak’s was started by a Cherry Hill, New Jersey, businessman named Gene Taylor, who launched it as a pop-up in a few Montgomery Ward stores in the 1960s before opening a brick-and-mortar location inside the local mall. After a decade or so of growth, Dunderbak’s was sold to a North Carolina company in the 1980s, though Taylor hung on to his Cherry Hill location until 1990.
Originally, Dunderbak’s had a cheese shop and a sausage shop, and often sold hot dogs and sauerkraut from a cart out front. It was more of a grocery stand than a restaurant, though there were a few tables scattered about, from which you could order schnitzel or sauerbraten and wash it down with one of eight beers (there are now 450 to choose from). Over time, the seating area began to grow, until the place became a full-blown restaurant.
The one in Volusia County was opened in 1975 by Ted Teschner, his wife Linda, and his sister Judy Krodel. Teschner’s father helped him acquire it after they’d all visited another Dunderbak’s location in Florida and found the concept promising.
I’ve been coming to Dunderback’s since 2010, when my late stepfather, also named Ted, took me there for lunch after he and Mom bought me a new pair of shoes at Dillard’s. Ted always found good restaurants in unexpected places: He is the kind of guy who would’ve done Roadfood founders Jane and Michael Stern proud. But instead of heading out on the road trying to find the best diners, mom and pop restaurants, and coffee shops, Ted just ended up at them. I never really thought about the story behind the place until 2015, when I saw an article about its 40th anniversary in The Daytona Beach News-Journal. And it was only recently that I decided to call Ted Teschner for more details.
Talking to Teschner on the phone takes on the same feel as drinking a boot of beer with him at the bar. We ran through a few basic interview questions: “Do you like German food?” Answer: “Sort of.” Then we moved on to well-worn stories about his misspent youth; how his wife put him on the right track; how, one night, he gave a ride to a hitchhiker named Aileen Wuornos, America’s first female serial killer. “She had a hard life,” he told me, with the authority of someone who’s seen a lot of hard lives lived in this place. I asked him if any famous people ever came in. He mentioned a local TV reporter, some well-known NASCAR drivers, and, oh yeah, “that British guy that used to run around a lot.” He was talking about Benny Hill.
I told him it was one of my favorite restaurants, and he seemed a little embarrassed. But Teschner knows I’m not the only one who feels that way. In that Journal article, he said he knew the place was an escape for weary shoppers. “We’re kind of like a cave in the mall where you can kind of go in and forget what’s going on outside that door,” he said. If you have a panic attack after getting lost in the men’s department at Dillard’s (as I once did), it’s almost like a therapist’s office.
There’s another reason I love Dunderbak’s. One I didn’t share with Teschner. One I hardly share with anyone. For the past 25 years, I’ve suffered from a little-known malady called depersonalization disorder. A lot of people just call it DP, and it’s a nightmare, really. The symptoms are similar to what some call “mall zone” — that feeling that you’re hovering over your own body; that the interactions you’re having with others aren’t happening at all; that you’re a ghost in this world.
It kicks in especially hard during stressful times, acting as a defense mechanism to ward off what I’m guessing would be too much anxiety for the sufferer’s brain to handle. The worst part is that it almost never goes away. My wife sometimes finds me in our kitchen staring into space, not knowing where I am. During editorial meetings back when I was a full-time staffer at a magazine, the editors would often look at me as if I wasn’t listening, not realizing that, in my mind at least, I wasn’t even there.
And while a crowded beer hall seems like an unlikely escape hatch when my symptoms are at their worst (malls are anathema to the DP sufferer), Dunderbak’s is reassurance that the world is OK — that this German Christmas market fantasyland exists for me to be a part of. It’s like stepping from a nightmare and into a memory of a perma-grinned and beery-eyed world where you can curl up like a wet paper straw in the best possible way. As Sylvia smiled at the drunken man last December, I knew she was feeling the unexpected magic of the place — just as much as I was.
Keith Pandolfi is a James Beard Award-winning writer and editor. His work can be found in The Wall Street Journal. Saveur, Serious Eats, The New York Times, among other publications. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife and daughter.