The return of 'The Rat'

Nov. 1, 2010 1:53 am

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.