Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Rat is closed? Noooooooo

If you spent any time at all in Chapel Hill in the 1940s through the 1970s, you were probably affected in some way by an Austrian refugee named Theodor Danziger who had fled Europe when Hitler’s Nazis were setting out to wipe Jews from the face of the earth.
Somehow Danziger and his wife Bibi found their way to Chapel Hill – with the help of Quakers, I have read – and there they began opening restaurants that catered to the college crowd as well as young sophisticates hungry for the kinds of experience their dining atmosphere offered.
Danziger’s Old World Coffee Shop on Franklin Street, the Zoom Zoom Room a block west, the Ranch House around the corner and down the road and, perhaps most famous, the Ram’s Head Rathskeller on Amber Alley down some steps from Franklin.
The story goes that the Rathskeller, a dark, dingy place with a warren of rooms done up variously like a cave, a train car and a bohemian eatery, was the first place in North Carolina to serve pizza not long after World War II ended.
Everyone has a Rathskeller story; mine dates to about 1963 when I was in high school and had just gotten my driver’s license. My big sister, by then a sophomore at Carolina, invited me over for dinner. We ate in the Cave Room. I had the Gambler, a thin skirt steak served on a hot-as-hades flat skillet covered in onions, garlic bread and green peas. (My friend David Perlmutt says he can still hear that platter sizzle from his days at the Rat.) I had a frosty mug of cider and thought I could get used to Chapel Hill real quick.
Over the years there would be more Gamblers, big hamburgers, beef stroganoff and a kind of soupy, salty lasagna that Sports Illustrated is said to have described as a bowl of cheese.
Everything good ends way too soon. In Chapel Hill the list of cultural casualties includes the Goody Shop, Jeff’s Campus Confectionary, the Porthole and a ramshackle beer joint called the Shack where my Geology 31 lab met a couple of times for some serious discussion, perhaps even about rocks.
The Rat, alas, closed down not long ago, and Danny Hooley’s story in The News & Observer describes where some of it went during a Saturday auction.
Some years ago a friend – an unschooled lout who had gone to UVa and thus didn’t enjoy our more refined sensibilities – complained that he had eaten at the Rathskeller and that the food just wasn’t that good. What’s the big deal, he wondered.
What, I wanted to know, is your point? You don’t go to the Rathskeller for the food, for crying out loud. You go for the experience of what it’s like to be in a college town again, when the place is jumping and folks are lined up out the door and anything is possible.
But not now. You can’t go to the Rathskeller at all now – another sign of the end of civilization.


Jess said...

Say it isn't so!!!!! I have many fond memories of "The Rat". Generations of Tar Heels to come will not know what they are missing.

Class of 1998

Anonymous said...

You can thank the one-man-disaster area known as Francis Henry for this. Since he bought the place it went downhill as he didn't listen to what patrons and staff thought. A perfect example was his elimination of the stroganoff from the menu and when it did make a comeback it was a paltry portion served on a bed of linguini. He has also presided over the destruction of an historic house off Rosemary St. and let the Colonial Inn in Hillsborough rot to a point of condemnation.

Jason said...

Anonymous is uninformed. The death of the Rathskeller is due entirely to the inability of the building to be brought up to code requirements for a restaurant. This has resulted in the Rathskeller's closing twice in the past decade for repairs that only put a short-term band-aid on the problem. Hopefully, another space can be found where the restaurant can eventually re-open.

Anonymous said...

sounds good Jack Over in Charlotte eating houses try to feed us catfish for grouper; watch out they will serve us dog for steak over here in the JUNGLE.

Anonymous said...

I miss the Porthole way more than the Rat.

Anonymous said...

Athens, GA would never of let this happen. It just goes to show that things have changed too much for the worse in Chapel Hill.

CoupeDBill said...

Here's my Rat memory. Somehow the guys from the Rat talked Bob Rosenbacher from the Hub to get a group together for a softball game. I'm sure our Hub uniform had to be khaki pants and starched button down shirts. Anyway, I was elected to pitch and I must have served up the perfect pitch to one of the Ratters. There's a chance the ball has still not come down. It cleared the fence on the rise and sailed over the trees. Needless to say we came in second that day, but I like to say that the Rat came in next to last.

Fast forward many years and I go to work for the Record Bar. I was running a store in Florida when I was promoted to regional manager. I flew up to the home office for my first meeting and since I was the newbie, they let me choose where to have lunch. Had to be the Rat. There were eight of us from Record Bar and when the bill came, it, of course, was presented to the new guy. I had no problems with that since I had plastic. As I go to checkout with my Master Card, the cashier tells me that they don't take charge cards. Big problems. No cash and my checks were from a Pensacola bank. The cashier says no problem with the check. He remembered hitting the home run off me eight years ago. I guess it pays to be a bad pitcher.

Thanks Jack for your blog. It helps keep my North Carolina roots strong. See you in the mountains.


Anonymous said...

I lived in chapel hill from 1958 til I got married 1981, and moved to cary. reading about the goody shop, jeffs, the zoom, brought tears to my eyes. I never thought the rat would go out of bussiness. I go back to C.H.now , wow ! the changes. it has long ago lost its college charm, and succumed to modern times. the rat was a hold out from the old days. thanks for the memories

Scooter said...

Firebawl - You left a couple of important sites off of your list: the Tempo Room and the Rockpile. As an aside, though not an eatery nor water hole, the biggest loss of all has to be the original Intimate Bookshop. S. Class of '68

Anonymous said...

This is indeed sad news. The Rat was an experience. I had often thought of going back to experience it again, but as I've gotten older, I wasn't sure it would be the same. I just didn't want to tarnish the good times I had there as a student. They may move it, but it will never be the same. Where it was was just as much a part of the experience as what they served.

Wayne Goodwin said...

In 1987-88, either just before or a few months after the infamous Donna Rice-Monkey Busines fiasco, former Senator Gary Hart came to Chapel Hill. (I was founder of a then-national organization called "Students With Hart".) He was trying to kick-start his fledgling campaign. After speaking for a horde of college students at the Student Union, he then asked me where could we go for lunch. Knowing that it would be a memorable experience and that he could shake untold numbers of hands in the close-knit caverns of The Rat, there we went. I recall having a steaming plate of spaghetti and sweet iced tea; not sure what he had but I'm sure he had something good. What I also recall is that denizens of The Rat thought it was VERY COOL to see Sen. Gary Hart - the man who could have been President in 1984 had he answered the "Where's the Beef?" question correctly - eating there. And as one was expected to do, he did in fact autograph the wall with his signature, joining the likes of UNC Tar Heel basketball coach Dean Smith, Michael Jordan, and folks. I suppose that his name has been painted over many times by now. ... Wow, it's been over 20 years already!

BILLYD said...

the tempo room had the best damn sandwiches ever made!!
anybody out there remember the "spartan". way, way better than any subway/blimpies/jersey mikes.

Anonymous said...

The other places I miss are the original Hector's, from the early 70's (before the fire), and (although not a food place), Kemp's shop that had sitars, incense, bizarre LPs from around the world, etc.

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JTboater said...

I worked at the Goody Shop in 1957-58 for Spiro. Anyone remember Bosso who actually ran the place when I was acting manager. It was not possible for a black man to be a manager of a freshman white guy back then. Wish I could turn the clock back without changing what now is accepted. Bosso would diserve that!!!

JTboater said...

I was a regular at the Tempo Room because of the sandwichs and the cool jaz. A great loss to Chapel Hill.

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