A note taped inside a window of the Rathskeller in Amber Alley announced that the landmark restaurant would close for renovation June 10. Printed austerely on a sheet of copy paper, the notice read, in part, “The building is in need of long over-due repairs. If the building owners will cooperate in making the necessary repairs to their building and make it possible to regain your business, we will look forward to serving you in an updated facility – the new old Rat – by the end of the summer.” It gave a post office box number in Hillsborough and an e-mail address as contact information for redeeming unused gift certificates.
The Rat’s owner, Francis E. Henry ’67, says he is negotiating with the building’s owners to repair, among other things, a leak that has closed “the cave,” one of five dining rooms in the underground pub. The owners are siblings who inherited the building and live in California.
“We’re planning on reopening; I can’t afford not to,” Henry said. “I expect to be open by the start of school.”
The Rathskeller has been a Chapel Hill institution since 1948 when Mary Alice “Bibi” and Theodor Danziger opened the Viennese-style beer cellar underneath the coffee house they started in 1939. In the late 1930s, Theodor Danziger had fled his native Vienna to escape the Nazis, leaving behind his coffee house and candy manufacturing business. With the help of the Quakers, he and his wife and children arrived separately in Chapel Hill. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Danzigers opened Zoom Zoom pizzeria, The Ranch House steak house, and Villa Teo, serving European cuisine.
After Danziger died in 1990, the restaurant slowly declined. In late 1999, upon hearing that the pub would close for good in a few weeks, Henry – with John Woodard ’68, who owns Sutton’s Drug Store; Ken Jackson, owner of Wentworth and Sloan Jewelers; and Bryan Wilson, proprietor of Ye Old Country Kitchen in Snow Camp – teamed up to save The Rat. They closed it for two weeks for minor repairs and major cleaning and closed it again for about six weeks after graduation in 2000 to overhaul the kitchen.
“We never took a paycheck,” Henry said. “I kept it open because I love the place and the people.”
Henry has been the sole owner since 2002. He also owns The Colonial Inn in Hillsborough and the former Delta Upsilon Fraternity house on the corner of East Rosemary and Hillsborough streets in Chapel Hill.
Jackson, who had his first date at The Rathskeller in 1968, said people would come back to the below-street-level restaurant to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries year after year.
“It is very much a part of the fabric of this community,” he said.
Part of The Rat’s charm was its staff, some of whom had worked there for decades. Kenny Mann Sr. was hired as a cook at The Rathskeller in 1949 and didn’t retire until 2003. Mann prided himself on the speed at which the customers were served, and for decades the high volume and quick turnover made the business a success.
“You’d come in and order your food,” Mann said. “In five minutes, if you weren’t eating, it was your fault, because the food was in front of you.”
Customers were known to line up down the alley, up the steps and out onto Franklin Street, waiting for a custom-designed salad, a platter of lasagna or the Gambler, a steak smothered in onions. But in recent years, Mann said, “There was no lines. You could walk in and sit anywhere.”
Bryan Wilson had heard rumors in late spring that Henry might be looking for a buyer. Then early in June, days before the sign appeared in the Rat’s window, a customer from Mebane who had recently returned to the area came into Ye Old Country Kitchen and was musing to Wilson about getting a group of UNC alumni together to invest in The Rat.
Wilson said he told the man, “You can’t go wrong with the alumni base you have there and the history of the place.”
“I told him he should hurry,” Wilson said. “It needs to be running by the time football season starts up.”
Related coverage is available online; these articles appeared in the Carolina Alumni Review, available online to GAA members: