The return of 'The Rat'

Editor’s note: The Rathskeller is still not open, but the restaurant’s Facebook page indicates that it will open in “late 2011.” Please see the page for more information. 

Crouching in dimly lit rooms, flashlight in hand, Diane Fountain can barely contain her excitement as she shares her vision for the Ramshead Rathskeller.

She lists features that are a mixture of the nostalgic and the dynamic: Higher ceilings. 65-inch plasma-screen televisions. Two skylight booths. New recipes for the cheese bowl and The Gambler. A second bar.

“The whole purpose of this is bringing it back the way it was,” Fountain said. “We’re going to keep the nostalgia. But we do need to kick it up a few notches.”

For now, the alleyway space off Franklin Street that has housed the restaurant for decades is more memory than bustling business, more rubble than enticing aroma.

The Rathskeller — nicknamed “the Rat” since it was opened in 1948 by Austrian immigrant Ted Danziger — has been closed since December 2007 to the disappointment of Chapel Hill residents and University of North Carolina alumni. Its assets were auctioned off to satisfy payment of taxes by a previous owner, and the structure was abandoned.

Enter Fountain, a real estate developer and 1980 UNC graduate who lives in Wilmington. After learning this past summer that “the Rat” sat empty, she worked to determine what it would cost to lease the space, upgrade and reopen the restaurant, a figure that will approach $1 million. So far, it’s been a question of what to fix next.

On one day, it is a group effort just to get a few lights to turn on. Employees from Sutton’s Drug Store, up on Franklin Street near Amber Alley, walk down to assist with the circuit breakers. Mislabeled with strips of tattered duct tape and old restaurant surveys, the breaker lights only about a third of the restaurant. Electrical cords are tangled on the floor, ceiling tiles are misaligned, old ductwork is exposed and piles of wood block entryways.

“We’re going to kick it up, clean it up and make it better,” Fountain said. “But it’s still going to be the Rathskeller.”

The plans

Two years after the restaurant closed and more than 60 years after it originally opened, Fountain has formed a team of UNC alumni — kitchen designer John Lindsey, property manager John Morrison and architect Jim Spencer — to help reopen the Rathskeller by the beginning of next year.

In addition to leasing the space from the Munch family, heirs to the Danziger estate, Fountain’s costs include $847,000 for construction, $100,000 in kitchen renovations and $40,000 for a digital point-of-sales system.

The preliminary construction plan has notations for the space needed for contemporary ranges, convection ovens and pizza ovens: “The reason the ‘kitchen’ is as low as it is: the hood must be 6’6″ above the cooking surface. The ceiling is low, therefore, the original Rat dug out the floor to accommodate the hood, supposedly running into bedrock [good possibility] with dirt taken away in the trunk of Ted Danziger’s car.”

Other notes on the plan include the current state law concerning food service and handling, necessary equipment, the Rat’s original cartoon logo of a rodent hoisting a beer mug, and of course, the menu.

Bill Donovan, head chef for the Raleigh Civic Center and recruited as the Rathskeller’s new general manager, has plans to revive and improve recipes of favorites like the lasagna “cheese bowl” and “The Gambler” — a skirt steak served on a sizzling flatiron skillet in a wood holder. The dish is noted on a prototype menu as a “chewy, elongated, highly inedible half-pound rustled steer. Slipped under the table to any bandit with a miserly amount of salad, a few mashed up fries and burnt bread. Sorry, no credit allowed on our top seller.”

“We’re going to try to make the fare a little bit more upscale,” Donovan said. “I’m going to have to learn and get to meet the people, and start fraternizing with the alumni and the sports people and all. I’m going to be walking into a restaurant that already has a tradition, already has a following.”

Fountain said planning, which began in June, has been meticulous.

Each of the six rooms will still revolve around original, if updated, themes, like the Cave, the Train Room and the Circus Room. The wall holding the Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec style painting in the original Mural Room will be knocked down to enlarge other areas, but a similar-style painting by the same artist will be created on a new wall in that room.

Lindsey designed the custom flatiron skillets needed to authentically recreate how The Gambler was served for decades.

The wait staff will still take orders for the infamous lasagna cheese bowl, but they will do it using a hand-held digital keypad that takes orders and swipes credit cards wirelessly, an experience Fountain calls “digital dining.”

Traditional items on the menu will stay, but the restaurant will also cater to students with new items, like a recipe for wings courtesy of Fountain’s son, Meares Green, and homemade dough for a New York-style pizza.

The old prep kitchen will be converted into a second bar, and students will be able to vote on a new theme for that room.

The furnace that customers huddled around in the winter will be replaced by a heating system that will warm the entire restaurant, and the faux fireplace will work electrically.

“The unique furnace that everyone remembers when it was 10 degrees and raining outside is going to have to leave, too, because the fire department will not let us have it,” Fountain said. “I’m putting in an absolutely beautiful electric fireplace that will put out heat and also gives out that romantic feel when you walk in.”

The slate floors and wood paneling will stay, but ceilings will be raised and electrical wiring will be updated.

One thing that won’t change is the decades of names etched into the wood paneling and the booths. But these colorfully etched tables will have a new addition — mini flat-screen televisions that echo a time when the tables once held jukeboxes, Fountain said.

The memories

Fountain remembers going to the Rathskeller as a little girl and later taking her own children there.

“The one place we would always come as I was growing up and we came back to the football games was the Rathskeller,” Fountain said. Her father, Jim Fountain, was head cheerleader at UNC, and the Rat was always a stop when he took the family back.

“I came here not only as a little girl, but I pretty much raised my children coming back and forth to the Rathskeller,” she said.

Fountain said her kids loved to play with the jukeboxes, even though many of them no longer worked. With her three children all grown, she said people warned her of empty nest syndrome. But reviving the Rat will take that away, she said.

“You walk in and it feels good,” she said. “This is home.”

Strong emotional ties to the Rathskeller are common among residents and UNC alumni. When Fountain went to a football game this year, the crowd around her was buzzing with rumors of The Rat’s return.

And students walking through the alley have peered in the windows when the lights are on, and Fountain has rushed outside to confirm suspicions and to tell them that the restaurant would be reopening.

“When it means something to someone else, too, it just adds value,” she said.

A 2008 auction — held to satisfy nonpayment of state sales taxes by the previous owner — saw many items from the restaurant purchased by businesspeople and fans alike.

Jim Lilley, a local real estate agent who joined with two others to buy $10,000 worth of booths and tables, said he would like to see those items back in the restaurant.

“It’s like the Old Well,” he said of the restaurant. “There just isn’t anything else like it today.”

The people

What made the Rat special and what most people remember about the Rathskeller was its staff. It was not uncommon for customers to ask for their favorite wait person each time they visited.

And for Fountain, the original staff is important to reviving the Rat’s brand. Former head waiter Eugene “Pops” Lyons started working at the Rathskeller in 1963 when he was 17. He spent 42 years with the restaurant and considers himself to be the leader of the former staff. Once Fountain contacted Lyons, he contacted other former employees in hopes they will return to work at the Rat.

Rodwick Nunn, a former cook who began working at the Rathskeller in 1980 at age 18, said he grew up in the restaurant long before he started working there.

“I would just come down here and play around, doing nothing but getting in the way,” he said, adding that he would come and play as a child while his father, James Nunn, cleaned floors.

“He was one of the old heads that came into the company wanting to do a great job and great leadership,” Nunn said about his father.

For some of the employees, the Rathskeller was more than a second home — it was a family.

Larry Alston, who started as a dishwasher in 1989 and became a cook six months later, said he grew up without a father.

“The Rat taught me a lot about life at a young age,” Alston said. “When I came down here at 23 I was pretty much the youngest cook here. Everyone here was pretty much a father figure to me.”

The history


Edward G. Danziger and his family fled their native Austria and the Nazi invasion in the late 1930s, making their new home in Chapel Hill. Following a stint in the U.S. Army, Ted and their father dug out the space that is now the restaurant, according to Ted’s brother, Erwin Danziger. The restaurant is directly below the Shrunken Head Gift Shop on Franklin Street, a space that once held the family Viennese candy shop, Danziger’s Old World Restaurant and Candy Kitchen.

The Chapel Hill Historical Society’s Jason Tomberlin, writing in the Chapel Hill News on April 20, 2008, related the story:

“Papa D’s wife and two children soon followed him to Chapel Hill, and the family settled down in the village, becoming an integral part of the community. After serving in the U.S. Army, Theodor M. Danziger, Papa D’s youngest son, returned to Chapel Hill and entered the restaurant business. After deciding to utilize the area beneath Danziger’s candy shop, Ted began clearing out the basement and carting away excavated dirt one car-trunk load at a time. In 1948, the Rathskeller opened in the newly constructed “basement,” with its front door opening onto Amber Alley.”

“I as a young boy even had to bend over quite a bit to get in there,” Erwin Danziger said, recalling how the basement space used to create the restaurant was once a storage area for canned goods.

Danziger said they just kept digging, and over the years it turned from a one-room beer joint into a six-room restaurant. Ted would travel to Chicago to buy high-quality meat because there was no local market that could provide enough for the Rathskeller and the Danzigers’ other eating establishments, he said.

Following Ted’s death in 1965, his wife Bibi ran the restaurant until she died in 1990, when the estate took over day-to-day management. Local businessmen owned and operated the Rat from 1999 until 2008.

And since Fountain, the sole investor in the project, took on this effort, she has heard from many who are interested in the restaurant and said she is working to make it possible for more people to invest. Fountain said she even got a call from former Tar Heel basketball star and coach Phil Ford, asking how he could help with the restaurant’s return.

“Everybody feels like they own a piece of the Rat,” she said.

Just like the Rat’s founders, Fountain wants the restaurant to revolve around its people.

“Mr. and Mrs. Danziger did it right,” she said.

Amanda Ruehlen, a senior from Concord, N.C., is an assistant editor for the Reese Felts Digital News Project.

  1. My father attended UNC in the late 50's and early 60's. He dined regularly at the Rat. As a child, he often took myself and my siblings to dine there. I also attended UNC and dined there whenever I could. I had several first dates at the Rat. I later introduced my husband to the joys of a Gambler and an ice cold Michelob dark in a frosty mug. We, in turn, have taken our two sons since they were able to eat table food. Both my sons were heart broken when they learned of the closing. My eldest son will be attending UNC next year and I am thrilled that we may again be able to continue a family tradition of over 50 years of dining at the Rathskeller .

    Comment by Pagie on November 15, 2010 at 10:56 am

  2. I was in the 2nd class of women to be admitted to UNC Chapel Hill (only rising juniors and seniors were admitted) and in 1953 I got a part time job pushing the pastry cart in Danziger's Restaurant. It didn't pay much, but I got fastastic free food instead of eating in the dread UNC cafeteria. It was a fun job, and after work my boyfriend (later husband) and I would go down to the Rat for a beer. The Danzigers were super people and were much loved by all. I'm thrilled to hear the Rat of opening again – just wish somebody would re-open Danziger's Restaurant, and make those delish pastries!

    Comment by Mary in SC on November 15, 2010 at 8:31 pm

  3. As a member of the Class of 1963, I gotta tell ya, I'm more excited about this than a Carolina-Dook basketball game. Here's wishing Ms. Fountain ultimate success with this wonderful project. And please, don't forget the "Beef Parmesan" on the menu; it's a glorified hamburger steak, and I ate more than my share at The Rat.

    Comment by nratt on November 18, 2010 at 9:58 am

  4. I am ridiculously excited about this. I mean, stupid excited about this. It's been a very long three years. Thankfully it seems we finally have someone with both the means and the mindset to do this right. I'm glad to see that people are offering their assistance – I hope that Ms. Fountain knows that all she has to do is put out the word to the community and there's a legion of Rat obsessives out there waiting for the call.

    A few concerns: Please, please, please do not change the recipes for the lasagna or the Gambler. That's just not done. Heck, I'm worried that all this new modern kitchen equipment won't be able to re-create the food. Don't try to fancy it up *too* much. They tried making it more posh a few years ago and it just stuck out like a sore thumb.

    And good call on getting the staff back. That is an absolutely crucial element of the experience.

    I just wish those jukeboxes still worked!

    Comment by Too-loose! on November 19, 2010 at 2:55 pm

  5. Glad to see they're opening the windows into the alley back up – please bring back the giant pot of chili that used to sit in the window! And pie…

    Comment by OneMoreThing on November 19, 2010 at 2:58 pm

  6. My mom still talks about the French Onion Soup!! I was a lasagna fan when I was at UNC. This is SO exciting. Thanks for bringing the Rat back.

    Comment by laura on November 19, 2010 at 4:51 pm

  7. I was a student in the late '60s, and I loved cold nights spent at the Rat with my boyfriend. It was always so warm and welcoming. And it had the best cider and the best salad dressing.

    Comment by heelcat69 on November 19, 2010 at 7:06 pm

  8. A visit to the Rat was almost always a part of trips to Chapel Hill for me until its closing. Looking forward a great deal to the reopening. Thanks for writing such a great article on the restaurant, you did a great job. Not only is your piece informative, it's a pleasure to read.

    Comment by Wool Hat on November 19, 2010 at 9:48 pm

  9. Yes. Please do not mess with the "Bowl of Cheese." If you can't stretch it at least 4 feet, it just won't be the same

    Comment by J4Justice on November 23, 2010 at 4:21 pm

  10. This is Diane Fountain, and anything that you can do to help the Rathskeller be what it was I would love to know. We are now open for investors.

    Comment by Diane Fountain on December 2, 2010 at 8:04 pm

  11. This is Diane Fountain, and my mother completely agrees!! Heres to our lasagna! Come and get it!

    Comment by Diane Fountain on December 2, 2010 at 8:05 pm


    Comment by C.ALLIGOOD on December 7, 2010 at 10:25 am

  13. I agree..Not a good way to start off changing the Bowl.

    Comment by Bert Quick on January 6, 2011 at 3:50 pm

  14. Please Please .. Don't start messing with the menu. Gonna change the cheese bowl recipe … are you crazy !!
    "We’re going to try to make the fare a little bit more upscale,” Donovan said. Really …… disappointing. IF IT AIN'T BROKE DON'T FIX IT !!!

    Comment by Bert on January 7, 2011 at 11:02 am

  15. Any updates?

    Comment by G Campbell on January 11, 2011 at 11:27 am

  16. Thanks for asking! Amanda is currently working on a follow-up story — watch out for it in the weeks to come.

    Comment by noelcody on January 11, 2011 at 1:16 pm

  17. My husband and I went on our first date there and my favorite was the Lasagna, his was Rare Roast Beef. Eating there was always a trip down memory lane for us. Thanks for bringing it back! Love to see the juke boxes remain (even if they don't work) Looking forward to the opening!

    Comment by V. Hunley on January 18, 2011 at 8:15 am

  18. Please keep the house dressing on the salad, the greasy bread, the beef parmesan, and the sweet tea. The Rat was where my grandparents took my parents while they were dating and where I went the weekend I first had my driver's license. I hope some of the waiters can be found – those guys were awesome and are legends.
    It was a VERY sad day when I went to the Rat and saw that it was closed, but it is great to see that there are some who still value history and tradition. Thanks!

    Charlotte, NC

    Comment by ken on January 24, 2011 at 12:06 pm

  19. Is everything still on schedule for opening? I'm really missing my rare roast beef!

    Comment by @OrioleWay on February 1, 2011 at 9:53 pm

  20. Howdy hey! Fountain's estimating an August opening, according to the follow up story that Amanda just finished! You can check it out here:

    Comment by @danielsircar on February 3, 2011 at 1:17 am

  21. my family is SO excited that the RAT is back- As a Chapel Hill native-it was the place to go on a date in the 70's; my husband & I ate there as UNC students in the 80's, and it was the first restaurant that our daughter (CHHS '13) asked for by name…..

    Comment by mary ayers on February 3, 2011 at 8:45 pm

  22. Loved the Rat in the late 70's, early 80's. Was always entertained by the "sizzle" of the Gambler as it came by the table. Also, Rare Roast beef, salad dressing, lasagna, french onion soup were great. You just can't replicate the environment of this place, and the low ceiling clearance and jumble of rooms was part of the unique ambiance. No surprise that code and fire/safety laws won't allow this any more, but it was fun! I agree with earlier comment not to feel a need to fancy up the menu and make changes to the great old recipes. Congrats to the new owners for seeing this through. Good luck and many thanks from all Tar Heels.

    Comment by Jon on February 8, 2011 at 6:43 pm

  23. I grew up in Chapel Hill and graduated from Chapel Hill High School (then, the only high school) in 1969. In junior high, it was the ultimate cool thing to go to the movies and then have lunch at the Rat. What a treat. My husband and I both graduated from UNC and he attended dental school, so we had many, many years at the Rat. Our daughter also attended UNC, thankfully before the Rat closed. I can still taste the Single Gambler, with sauteed onions and hot fries. The Thousand Island Dressing is still the best I have ever tasted and we loved the "hot, mushy garlic bread". How about the mugs (back then they were real glass and came iced ) filled with sweet tea? I doubt that too many people can conjure up a dining memory like the experience of eating at the Rat. Thank goodness it's coming back. Please Ms. Fountain, try to keep it as much like the original as you can. There are millions of us who want you to succeed! Nancy, Charlotte, NC

    Comment by Nancy on February 11, 2011 at 9:11 am

  24. Please leave the Cheese Bowl and Gambler the same……Please hurry up and open!!!!

    Comment by Steve on April 12, 2011 at 1:08 pm

  25. I started going during high school in the 50's and continued until it finally closed. It sounds as though you definitely understand what it will take to make it successful……My family and I can't wait!!

    Comment by 5tatertots on April 12, 2011 at 8:13 pm

  26. Great memories of all the Danzigers restuarants. Best of all the Rat.

    Best memory. My now 38 year old daughter and non practicing lawyer being given 25 cents (or was it 10 cents) to play a song on the juke box. Suddenly Doug Clark's "Baby let me bang your box" blares out. She was 6.

    Can't wait.

    Comment by Cecil Sewell on April 13, 2011 at 11:11 am

  27. not the gambler!!!! i love it does anyone know if it has reopened yet?

    Comment by heather on July 11, 2011 at 3:55 pm


    Comment by GAYLE CLAPP on August 9, 2011 at 7:35 pm

  29. Graduated in '85 and had many good meals at "The Rat!" Will be glad to see the warm, friendly, and traditional place open again. The waiters were the BEST! When I come back for a visit to Chapel Hill (from NM!) it will be like coming home. You could always find someone you knew there, and I expect it will have that same feel again. Thank you, Ms. Fountain for reviving our heritage in Chapel Hill!

    Comment by Camille Chandler on September 20, 2011 at 11:56 am

  30. In the early 50's, I used to play piano in the Rat on weekends night. Lots of beach music and rock and roll.
    Ron Levin, Class of '55

    Comment by Ron Levin on November 26, 2011 at 1:01 am

  31. My parents went to the Rat on their first date. My husband & I dated there as well. We are so excited that you are reopening. Please don't change the gambler or lasagna – the house salad dressing was great too. You are right that the wait staff was awesome – we moved out of town and they always remembered us when we came back.

    Comment by Ann David on November 27, 2011 at 4:40 pm

  32. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am thrilled that our Rat is coming back!!!! A lot of great memories, for me, are stored between those walls. Looking forward to the opening and can't wait for an order of my favorite….the Gambler. Please try to keep the recipes as authentic as possible and thanks to the original wait staff etc. returning.
    You are making a lot of people happy and doing a tremendous favor for the UNC community/family! Thank you for your vision and hard work.
    A loyal 1970 graduate from Greensboro, NC
    Rose Jay

    Comment by Rose Jay on December 30, 2011 at 11:55 am

  33. I was one of the lucky ones to grow up…well, my wife says I never grew up, but got big in Chapel Hill. We would skip Jr. high and high school, both of which stood where University Square is now and go to the Rat. The beef burger with thousand island dressing was the best there ever was and the pizza was better than anything Italy could dream of. The sweet tea…oh my. It was strong and sweet the way sweet tea should be. In the pictures accompanying the article, the "bartender" on the left in picture 4 and the "waiter" in picture 6 is B.C. Hedgepath. I believe he was the original manager of the Rat and was there for many years. Good luck Diane.

    Comment by davidjr on January 29, 2012 at 5:09 pm

  34. Does anyone have the latest status??? When is the re-reopening?

    Comment by S. Brown on February 9, 2012 at 2:02 pm

  35. Gotta have my "bowl of cheese"! My daughter and I will be your first patrons! Thanks for re-opening my favorite UNC restaurant. I rewarded myself many nights with that "bowl of cheese" after an impossible pharmacy exam!

    Comment by Page on February 21, 2012 at 9:18 pm

  36. Change is sometimes necessary, but it is not aways a good thing. I agree about not changing the "Bowl of Cheese" and I would HATE to see the pizzas change. They had a look and a taste that was unique to the Rat and I am sure that all of the alums would prefer that instead of a commercial "New York Style" pizza that you can get at any fast food joint. Haven't seen any mention about the fabulous rare roast beef and double rare roast beef sandwiches. Hope that they will return also. Really looking forward to the Rat opening.

    Comment by Elliott Murnick &#03 on May 7, 2012 at 2:22 pm

  37. And please resurrect the wonderful vegetable-beef soup…..SO good on a cold day! My husband Jay (now deceased) managed Milton's Clothing Cupboard in the early 60s, before attending dental school. I finished both my BA and an MEd at CH, classes of ' 64and '65. Can't count the hundreds of meals we had at the Rat in those six years! And we also loved Mrs. Danziger's Danish pastries…..she was always chiding me about being too skinny!

    Pam McCaslin, now living in Savannnah

    Comment by Pamela McCasi on June 14, 2012 at 1:42 am

  38. Oldy but goody.
    Please don't change a thing.
    Everything was great even the sweet tea, you couldn't pass up several pitchers.No one could make tea like them.
    I would go by there with my own pitchers and purchase their tea.I would love to know their recipe.Not to sweet,not to's just right
    Holidays and birthdays, we would get our work done and have our parties there.Bar was hopping!
    Bought special drinks to collect the Rat's drinking glasses.
    Eaten in every section of the Rat, placing our names in each section.Knowing each waiter by their nicknames,even being picked on by certain ones.Our Co-workers and the Rat staff,we're One big happy family.
    I always played the jute box when I was there.
    I'm retired now,out of town and would make a special trip to see some of the old staff members,giving them a hug.
    The place reminded me of Cheers,in a way.
    Betsy E. Snipes

    Comment by Betsy Snipes on June 22, 2012 at 7:57 pm

  39. I remember going here every first Monday of the month after having tests done at the hospital. It was the one thing that I looked forward to and that made all the tests bare able as 13 year old girl. Now that I have children I would love to bring them back to this great restaurant and have more memories of this great place!

    Comment by Trisha on September 20, 2012 at 1:12 am

  40. Davis Blackwell, who I have immortalized in my second book, was the waiter Ms. Clapp asks about. I knew him from my own infancy — both my parents were graduate students at UNC-CH back in the late '50s and early 60s. Davis was like an old family friend and about the classiest server I have ever known! The Rat was our favorite place to go — especially on Friday nights! My sister, now a doctor in Portland, Oregon, misses the place, too. I took my high school students there during an Honor Band weekend the last few months it was open. So glad I got a final taste. Let's hope the resurrected / reincarnated Rat is as good or better! Even though I teach in the NC Mountains — 5 hours away — my parents still live in Durham. We reminisce regularly about the Gambler and the Rare Roast Beef sandwiches. Guess I'll go and whip up some of that salad dressing — it's an easy Russian dressing, by the way. And before you cook that skirt steak, you gotta beat the living hell out of it! Mmmm, boy! Can't wait!

    Comment by Kurt H. on December 18, 2012 at 2:52 pm