Where Baltimoreans dined amid fine art

Haussner's: An institution where generations found Old World elegance and hometown charm nears its final sitting

Haussner's Restaurant: 1926-1999

September 09, 1999|By Carl Schoettler and Jacques Kelly | Carl Schoettler and Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Haussner's Restaurant, a Highlandtown landmark for 73 years, will close at the end of the month and take another piece of the heart of an older, gentler and starchier Baltimore with it.

Baltimore without Haussner's -- where generations of patrons dined from an old-fashioned menu top-heavy with calories, surrounded by walls crammed with paintings, ceramics and sculpture -- seems as unthinkable as Paris without the Louvre, Washington without the Monument, San Francisco without the Golden Gate.

But on Oct. 1, the restaurant at Clinton Street and Eastern Avenue will become the William and Frances Haussner campus of the Baltimore International College, a culinary school.

The founder's daughter, Frances Haussner George, who operates Haussner's with her husband, Steve, said the restaurant remains busy on Friday and Saturday nights and is still profitable. But she says the time has come to close.

"It's the right time," she said. "That's something you can't explain to anybody. It's impossible to sum up 73 years in one sitting or more than one sitting."

Much of the vast collection of gemutlich art that made dining at Haussner's feel like an evening's escape to a Bavarian castle will be sold at auction by Sotheby's in New York in a prestigious single-owner evening sale Nov. 2. Another 550 lots from the collection -- including the famous and curious 4-foot ball of string saved from linen bundles -- will be sold by Timonium auctioneer Richard Opfer on Dec. 16.

Sotheby's senior vice president, Nancy Harrison, an expert on 19th-century European paintings, drawings and sculpture, said the 160 paintings that will be sold in New York will bring more than $8 million.

Frances George, who is known as Francie, decided to donate the fully equipped building to the culinary school as a way to give back to the city that supported her restaurant.

"I want this to be a win-win situation," George said. "It's the most dignified thing I can do for this business and for Highlandtown."

"This is a magnificent and extraordinary gift," said George Piendak, the school's board chairman.

Life without Haussner's

Fighting tears during an interview, George expressed concern for the welfare of her employees, some of whom she hoped would be retained with the culinary school. Haussner's has a staff of 95, down from 107 last month and 210 at its peak. Nearly a quarter of them have worked there 20 years or longer. They display a remarkable loyalty to and fondness for the place.

"We're all going to feel like women without a country," said Milly Aristidou, who started work as a waitress on Feb. 21, 1957. "Life will never be the same without Haussner's."

The name Haussner's has meant a rare blend of elegance and egalitarianism in dining, combining white linens and folksy service by waitresses from the neighborhood who were friendly and efficient and called their regulars "hon."

The Haussner's waitresses -- almost as much a Baltimore icon as the oil paintings -- arrive in crisp white cotton uniforms and push their orders to the tables on wheeled carts draped in snowy napkins.

Over the years, the "stations" where these women served diners have acquired names such as "Apache, because you ran around like Apache Indians," "Dead Man" where a gentleman died one evening, and "Georgia," which was close to the kitchen and the habitual station of Georgia Beck, whose 47 years make her the senior waitress at the restaurant.

Diners celebrate birthdays, marriages, christenings, graduations, anniversaries and sometimes mourn their dead in dining salons where the passage of time has been gentle, the lighting subdued and the nostalgia as thick as the whipped cream that towers on the signature strawberry pie in the pastry case.

William Haussner, who trained as a chef in Europe, started modestly in 1926 with a lunchroom across the street from the present location. That was an era when Hungarian goulash with spaetzle and red cabbage cost 40 cents and a 2-pound charcoal-broiled sirloin steak was $1.25.

Customers were the first- and second-generation ethnic Americans who lived and raised their families in the rowhouses of East Baltimore with their well-scrubbed white marble steps. They came to Haussner's neatly dressed and as well-scrubbed as their homes.

Today, Francie George laments a continuing decline in civility and dress among her customers and said she occasionally upbraids a tubby diner who shows up in a net top and cutoff jeans.

William Haussner, who emigrated from Bavaria, and his wife, Frances Wilkes, who was born in Westphalia, Germany, worked side by side from the day they married in 1935.

"Oh, yes, we were partners all right," Frances Haussner told a reporter on the occasion of receiving an honorary doctorate from the College of Notre Dame. "I worked 18 hours a day."

She continued to run Haussner's after her husband died in June 1963. The Georges took over in 1981. Frances Haussner, in failing health, lives at Church Home.

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