Werner's thrives after 50 years in business

January 16, 2000

WERNER'S restaurant is enjoying mid-life. For 50 years, the 111-seat operation at 231 E. Redwood St. has fed the city's bankers, brokers and lawyers breakfast and lunch, dishing out homemade food and straightforward attitude.

It is a quick-bite place. The turkey club is its best-selling sandwich, and the homemade soup, three or four choices a day, sometimes dries up before the lunch hour ends. They sell 12 gallons of soup a day. On a recent day, the waitresses "86ed" (sold out) of split pea soup by 1 o'clock.

Ruth Kloetzli, who runs the place along with partner Diane Cooke, offers a glib assessment of the restaurant's appeal. "Some of our customers are in high-stress jobs and they come here because we're a comfortable place that serves real food," Ruth says. "We get you in and out -- soup, sandwich and drink -- for under $10. That is what we shoot for, because we want you to come back tomorrow, not next month."

The art-deco decor stuns newcomers. "People come in here, look around and say, `I feel like I have stepped back in time,' " says Kloetzli, granddaughter of the original owner, Werner Kloetzli Sr. As she talks, she gestures to booths made of mahogany and chestnut, glittering mirrors and shiny stainless-steel fixtures.

Much of the interior has not changed since 1938, when The Fountain, an ice-cream-and-soda emporium, occupied the East Redwood Street location. In 1950, Kloetzli's grandfather, an immigrant from Bohme, Switzerland, who settled in Baltimore, closed his Light Street restaurant called Hornick's and moved into The Fountain, renaming it Werner's. Ruth's parents, Bob and Jane Kloetzli, ran the restaurant until 1993, when they sold it to her and her partner.

As it celebrates its 50th year, Werner's is basking in the glow of a recent appearance on the silver screen. Several scenes in "Liberty Heights," Barry Levinson's film about Baltimore life in the 1950s, were shot at Werner's. It also had a cameo appearance in an earlier Levinson film, "Tin Men."

These days, the bulk of the restaurant's regular customers are denizens of the city's financial district. "We get the bow-tie guys, with round spectacles," Kloetzli says. "They are younger, very computer-literate. They exercise in the morning before they get here, and they eat like horses."

In addition to the younger contingent, there are longtime customers, who sit in the same place and often order the same thing from the same waitress. Attorney Henry L. Belsky, for instance, has a copy of the Daily Record, which tracks the maneuverings of the legal world, delivered to the restaurant, so he can read it while he eats egg, rye toast and cottage cheese for breakfast.

While the restaurant fare is simple, the particulars of how it is cooked and served are important, Kloetzli says. "Details matter at breakfast," she says. "Some people want their sausage chopped, their toast dry, and how eggs are cooked -- over easy, over medium and over hard -- is a real art," she says.

Over the years, Werner's has become attuned to the rhythms of the financial world. Like the stock market, it opens early, 7 a.m., and closes in mid-afternoon, 2: 15 p.m. It honors Wall Street holidays. And when it is a lousy day on Wall Street, it is also a slack day at Werner's.

"The guys don't come in here, because they're calming down their clients," Kloetzli says.

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