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The line: It starts at the door on South Clinton Street in Baltimore, descends down the steps into the overcast midday, travels the length of a long building, takes a right at Eastern Avenue, and goes on for another half a block. And this is just the people hoping to get a table for lunch sometime before dinner starts. There’s another line for bakery goods, in which people have been waiting for up to an hour, and yet another comprising folks who’ve finished eating and are waiting to be picked up by whoever went to fetch the car. It’s a long walk to some of those cars. Parking has been tough in Highlandtown ever since it was announced that Haussner’s would soon be serving its last meals.
At 12:30, as I take my place at the end of the line, Dot Darago is telling her aunt, Mary Krebs, “I thought the line would be longer.” The two women are waiting to be joined by Al, Darago’s husband, who’s out parking. The trio originally planned to lunch elsewhere, but Krebs floated the idea to eat at Haussner’s “one last time.” Despite the projected two-hour wait, it still seemed like a good idea. Al’s been eating at Haussner’s since 1939. He learned to be patient at a young age: When he was a kid, his parents would send him over to Haussner’s a half-hour ahead of the rest of the family. “There was always a line on weekends,” he says.
There’s some disagreement in the crowd as to when exactly Haussner’s will be put to rest. The restaurant’s answering machine is saying that it will be closed after the next day, Sept. 22, but many in line don’t see how that could be true. Ever since Sept. 9, when the front page of the Sun dropped the bomb, calling Baltimore without Haussner’s “as unthinkable as Paris without the Louvre,” media reports have suggested that the restaurant will remain open through September. Judging from the funeral procession of people, Krebs figured that today was D-Day. “Oh, the lines have been like this for weeks,” counters a voice from the crowd behind us, which continues to grow despite the promise of rain.
You don’t need to leave the line to find evidence that Haussner’s is something that neither its neighborhood nor its city will let fade anytime soon. Which is fitting, given that the restaurant itself, with its FDR-era food and its massive collection of pre-modernist art, has managed to virtually freeze-dry the day that it opened 73 years ago. A guy behind me bemoans the passing of the era in which men needed to wear a coat and a tie just to get in Haussner’s door. Hoping to coax some business from people put off by the rain, another man distributes menus for nearby Winterling’s—a restaurant that, according to Dot, serves “excellent sour beef and dumplings.” No one budges. Al figures that lunch today will take four hours total. “The only time I ever spent four hours eating was at my buddy’s house,” he says. “He’s Italian. They don’t stop eating.”
Across the street, someone with a video camera is recording the scene from a window above Rick’s Barber Shop. After a few minutes, he appears on the street, where he gets a wide-angle shot of the cavalcade. Next, he asks everyone to wave at the camera and yell, “Good-bye, Haussner’s!” And we do.
It takes more than an hour to get to the corner of Eastern and Clinton. Someone observes that it’s windier on Clinton, which shoots down toward the water. By 2 p.m., the rain is piercing, and the line’s bigger than it was when I arrived.
At 2:30, we’re inside. The maitre d’ confirms that tomorrow is indeed the final day. The goal was to stay open until the end of the month, he says. He explains the earlier closing with a shake of the head and the words: “Too many, too much.”
The judgment to close was made by Frances Haussner George, the only child of the restaurant’s founders, and her husband, Stephen, who decided to sell off the restaurant’s art and donate the building to a local culinary school. For years, Haussner’s art has been dismissed as kitsch—amusing but worthless examples of the prudish themes and styles favored by artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sotheby’s figures it will fetch more than $8 million for the choicest of the lot in November.
The hype of the wait befits the money shot, the first glance of this dining room: It’s beautiful. That’s not how I would’ve described the place after my first visit a couple of years back—then, it just seemed weird. Today, it’s a dreamscape of stone busts and brave soldiers and virginal girls playing with doves. It’s grace in the face of death. It’s as if the staff had been preparing for this day for all these years. “Right this way,” I’m told, and brought to a table, a good one, right beneath Briton Riviere’s The Dog Fancier. A basket of rolls—one pumpernickel, two poppy-seed, one rye—is brought soon thereafter. Then a mug of Bitburger.
Some people are crying. Flashbulbs pop, and pop, but it’s not like a tourist thing. I’m still at a restaurant. A man at the table across from me dictates the bill to his party—”You owe $23.16, including tip.” A woman at the table to my right keeps mentioning the Last Supper. She says she’s been here every day for three weeks.
My sour beef and dumplings could be the most beside-the-point meal I’ve ever had. Haussner’s menu of sausages and overcooked vegetables and heavily gravied, mercilessly sauced meats is so far removed from culinary trends that no one’s bothered to invent a good word for it. It’s German (paprika schnitzel), sure, and local (crab cakes, natch), too. But mostly it’s just the kind of stuff you eat when you eat at Haussner’s—or, rather, ate at Haussner’s.
A Haussner’s counterpart in D.C.? Florida Avenue Grill by a lap. Sure, Scholl’s (yes, it’s still open) is the tour-bus destination that locals rally behind, but it doesn’t offer up contact highs of someone else’s forgotten past with the same what’ll-it-be-baby? flare of the Grill. The black-and-whites on the wall speak to the restaurant’s history, the food to its reluctance to give that history up. The biscuits and gravy are my thing; the baked chicken may be yours. Either way, if you don’t know that the Grill is the place to get both, you haven’t lived here yet.
Florida Avenue Grill, 1100 Florida Ave. NW, (202) 265-1586.—Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.