The Feast That Was

Haussner's

It was unique, not chic, and it never, ever changed with the times

September 10, 1999|By Carl Schoettler and Jacques Kelly | Carl Schoettler and Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Dinner at Haussner's Restaurant in these last days is not so much an exercise in nostalgia as a pause in a place outside of time.

But as you dig into your sweetbreads and fried eggplant, you're conscious the end is near, as the prophets say.

In press conferences over the past couple of days, Francie Haussner George, the daughter of Haussner's founders, has announced that the restaurant will be turned over to the Baltimore International College on Oct. 1 as a culinary center for training cooks and that its many paintings and other works of art will be sold at auction in New York and Baltimore.

But as the finale approaches, Haussner's in 1999 looks pretty much as it did in 1959, a series of grand salons with walls covered with paintings that recall your grandmother's greeting cards, staring busts of Roman emperors and cabinets stuffed with porcelains and ceramic bric-a-brac.

But Haussner's is not of the '50s or '60s, or the '30s and '40s, any more than it is of the '90s. Haussner's is not out of style because it never was in style. Haussner's is perfectly sui generis, a unique institution that perhaps could only have come to fruition in an older, slower, stiffer Baltimore.

The paintings that line the walls are sweet and rich like the pastries in the showcase, mostly fondly sentimental stuff like the genre scene of altar boys drinking the communion wine. They're not so much decor as defined by Elle as atmospheric like the jumble that prevailed in your mom's china closet, or if she was as German as the Haussners, her vitrine.

The paintings, if not yet chic, are once again valuable. The experts at Sotheby's New York auction house expect their selection of 160 to bring more than $8 million.

The food may please trenchermen or trencherwomen more than gourmets or even gourmands. The menu of 1999 looks much like it did in 1949, dispensing calories and cholesterol with equal dispatch and disdain for contemporary diets. You're unlikely to find the fried marigolds of more visionary cuisines, but there is antelope.

The waitresses in their starched white uniforms approach your table like caregivers in a particularly friendly sanitorium. Many have been at Haussner's for decades. If you're 60 many seem like your mother; if 40, your grandmother; if 20, your great-grandmother. But they perform their tasks with high competency and exemplary vigor, their only concession to modernity their thick air-soled sports shoes.

The clientele has aged with the restaurant and time hasn't stopped for them. There is a kind of surf of gray heads waving through the dining rooms. Golden-agers who have been dragged to Haussner's by their well-meaning offspring are susceptible to medical emergencies. Francie George has become skilled in CPR as part of managing her restaurant. Occasionally a diner dies, once in the men's lavatory of the Gentlemen's Bar.

The atmosphere is heartily Germanic, more Bismarckian than BMWish. The beer on tap is Bitburger, the favorite of Berliners, and there's an excellent Hacker-Pschorr weissbier.

George sits down at your table like your big sister or a severe governess and recommends the Munich platter if you'd like an echt German dinner.

The platter looks as challenging as German grammar when it arrives, a feast that includes two pork chops, a smoked pork loin, a weisswurst, a bacon strip, a potato dumpling, everything in fact except an oom-pah band to serenade the eater.

The restaurant is bustling with activity a half hour before they stop serving at 10 p.m. when Dodie Callahan, a retired school teacher, brings in a busload of conventioneers from Missouri making an Insomniac Tour of Baltimore. They're having coffee and dessert before moving on to Poe's Tomb.

"They love it," says Callahan, who is dressed in an array of red, white and blue.

Haussner's has been a regular stop on the Insomniac Tours since they started.

"This is gonna break a lot of hearts," says Amelia Popoli, the silver-haired hostess who's been at Haussner's 32 years. At 10 o'clock when the last dinner orders have been taken, she sits down with a big slice of pie. She's wearing a Miraculous Medal.

"My nephew gave it to me," she says. "It's my pride and joy."

Haussner's is nothing if not family-oriented.

And in the days when lines at the door stretched around the corner from Clinton Street on to Eastern Avenue and waits for a table were often an hour, if a priest in clerical attire appeared at the door, he and his party were given immediate seating.

Men in Roman collars from Highlandtown's many churches dined frequently at the restaurant and often sat beneath paintings of scarlet-robed cardinals, perhaps drawing spiritual sustenance while they satisfied more earthly needs. Nuns who wore veils were also a Haussner tradition, often eating with their relatives.

At 10 p.m., as their stations close, waitresses gather in the "New Room" for a bite of their own opposite the prized painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema that may bring several hundred thousand dollars at Sotheby's.

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