The Rathskeller had not been closed a week and though I was 3,000 miles away, I already missed it.
When I moved to Raleigh in 1983, I was a naive 18-year-old from the country. Raleigh was bigger and more exciting than any city I'd been to, except for Washington, D.C. But Washington had no Rathskeller on Hillsborough Street. My former roommate and I first ate at the Rathskeller, a name my dictionary assures me means "German town-hall cellar," during our sophomore year. A food science major and semi-vegetarian, my roommate found the vegetarian-friendly menu a cornucopia of healthy and eccentric dishes. I was overwhelmed by the choices. Her favorite was the Tree Frog. I don't remember what that sandwich consisted of, but I loved the name.
I also remember hearing Joe Jackson's "Night and Day" as we ate there that first evening. Life, I surmised during my most eclectic dining experience to date, would never be better. Throughout our time at N.C. State, whenever my roommate and I managed to hoard some extra money, we spent it at the Rathskeller.
Life moved on and my roommate moved to Minnesota for graduate school. I began my job in advertising sales at WPTF-TV and occasionally stopped by the Rathskeller for a drink at the bar. With all the trendy new restaurants that the 1980s spawned in North Raleigh, I used my expense account to entertain clients at the latest venue. The Rathskeller sat patiently, waiting for my return.
Eventually, I gave up the corporate world to attend graduate school at N.C. State. As my student loan money allowed, I sometimes dined in the restaurant. Going through a divorce, I remembered the fond times that my former husband and I spent drinking wine and eating delicious French bread there, spreading real butter on top of each bite. I began to dine with other graduate students, replacing the bread, butter, and wine of my marriage with a spinach salad, dripping with bacon dressing.
One Sunday evening, a friend from my Beowulf class and I sat in the smoky bar. He told me he was also an adoptee, born in a Virginia maternity home as I had been. Because he was born in Lynchburg, home of Jerry Falwell, he feared that his natural mother had been a member of the religious right. Over my White Russian, I told him that my research into adoption indicated that his mother had probably been from another town, perhaps even another state. His face relaxed when I told him that his mother wasn't necessarily a fundamentalist.
One thing I loved about the Rathskeller was that its diverse atmosphere could make everyone feel at home. As my divorce neared its court date, I placed a personal ad. Tired of men, I decided to try dating women. I met my first female date in the same bar where I'd conversed with English department graduate students. The wood-paneled walls provided the illusion of safety as I stepped into this new and somewhat scary situation.
A few days after this date, I met my friends Sara and Mary-Helen in the bar. I had just returned from having my nose pierced, the hole in my skin still red. "I just can't look at you like that," Mary-Helen kept saying as we sat in the bar, mid-afternoon, drinking sodas. A few days later, I pulled out the annoying piercing stud.
After my divorce, I concentrated more on creative writing, falling deeply in love with poetry. How delighted I was to learn that my N.C. State poetry mentors, Gerald Barrax, Steve Katz, and Tom Lisk, regularly visited the Rathskeller with students. Sometimes they would bring along a visiting writer, providing poet Ellen Bryant Voigt, for instance, with such Rathskeller favorites as the decadent salmon. Over many spinach salads, I learned to love the rhythms of the English language more than I ever imagined I could.
The Rathskeller's food comforted me through good times and bad. In addition to falling in love with poetry, I fell in love with another poet, a student who eventually moved from Raleigh. After his move, I visited him in his new home and returned to Raleigh pregnant. Over unsweetened tea, I talked with a trusted friend about my decision not to continue the pregnancy. On a visit to Raleigh, my boyfriend asked me to marry him at the same booth where my friend and I had sat a few nights earlier. I excused myself and walked through the bar to the bathroom. I came back to the table and said yes, changing my mind to no a few days later.
After we broke up, I began dating the man who is now my husband. I quickly introduced my Miami-born boyfriend to my favorite Hillsborough Street haunt. The Rathskeller had stopped serving spinach salads by that time, something I never quite forgave them for. But there were plenty of healthy vegetarian delicacies on the menu, as well as dishes that pleased my meat and potatoes boyfriend.
After finishing my degree, I became a lecturer in the N.C. State English department. For lunches and dinners, I found other dining establishments along Hillsborough Street and in Cameron Village. But the Rathskeller remained more than a restaurant. It was where I had experienced, discussed, and analyzed the intricacies of my life. I continued to walk in, sometimes only ordering a glass of wine; when I needed the comfort and nourishment I could find nowhere else.
A couple of years ago, I received a miraculous call from a detective who told me she had found my natural mother. A few months later, I downed a couple of strawberry daiquiris and called the mother that nature gave me, the one I had been separated from 34 years earlier. She was happy to hear from me and we ended up talking for more than two hours. Having searched for her for as long as I can remember, I deemed the day of my phone call one of the happiest of my life. My husband and I decided to celebrate that night at the Rathskeller. Only after we arrived did I learn that my favorite place had stopped serving food at 10 p.m. We ended up going to a restaurant in downtown Raleigh. We ate well, but I missed the comfort of the dark paneling and the relaxed yet efficient wait staff.
A few months later, my husband and I moved to Los Angeles. Despite all the wonderful food of L.A., I could not forget the Rathskeller. Shortly after I moved to California, I became pregnant with my son. During my visits to Raleigh, I satisfied my pregnancy cravings with a blue cheese burger and some of the vegetable soup du jour.
Our son, Caleb, was less than two months old when he made his first trip to the Rathskeller. My newly found mother drove to Hillsborough Street from Wilmington. She held her new grandson as his father and I ate. Randy, a godfather of our son, also joined us. He suggested the sweet potato and black bean casserole with walnuts. As much as I love sweet potatoes, I found that combination odd. Then I tasted it. Randy was right. The kitchen had made this strange mixture into a delicious dish.
On our latest trip to Raleigh, in November, my husband and I debated whether or not to eat at the Rathskeller. Caleb had begun to crawl and we feared that life in the crowded restaurant would be difficult for everyone if we ate there that Thursday evening. I drove around the block four or five times, remembering fondly the time years ago when patrons could park in the lot behind the restaurant. Finally I found a parking space on Hillsborough Street and we decided to take a chance.
My husband ate the filet mignon and I ate a chef's salad. We dined in shifts, each of us drinking wine quickly as the other took Caleb to an empty back room. There he crawled eagerly, also climbing the steps that led to the room. A waitress came in a couple of times to retrieve desserts from behind double doors. She flirted with Caleb and he shyly turned his head. I remembered her, as she had worked there since I'd first gone to the Rathskeller, 18 years before.
We had no idea that night that the visit would be our last. I recently read about the restaurant's closing. According to the article, the restaurant had received a C rating shortly after our visit, mainly due to structural problems in the ceiling and walls. Employees implied that the owners found it easier to close the restaurant than to make the repairs.
In hindsight, I realize that I never thought of the Rathskeller as a business. I thought of it as a dear friend, a place that would always be there, for me and for my family and friends. In fact, this Hillsborough Street town hall was as vulnerable to economic woes as any other business. I wonder what will attempt to take its place. I know that for me and for many other loyal patrons, nothing ever can.