The recent closing of the Ramshead Rathskeller in Chapel Hill has got me in a pensive mood. I've seen scores of restaurants close their doors during my tenure as a restaurant critic, but the Rat, as it was affectionately known, was by far the oldest. The restaurant opened in 1948, making it not just a Franklin Street landmark but one of a mere handful of restaurants in the entire Triangle to reach the half-century milestone. What is it, I wonder, that brings about the demise of a local institution?
As far as I'm concerned, the Rathskeller's much-publicized financial problems were a symptom, not the cause. It's tempting to say that the Rathskeller failed to keep up with the times. But for every Irregardless Cafe, which has evolved over the years to keep pace with an increasingly diverse and sophisticated population, there's a Roast Grill, which has remained steadfastly unchanged for decades, right down to the screen door and "Hot Weiners" sign out front.
Whether a restaurant evolves or not, however, I believe it has to remain true to its original vision. I think the management of the Rathskeller lost sight of that vision. The last time I ate there, a couple of years ago, the menu hadn't changed much from the days when I was a college student in the mid-'70s, and the Rat's palate-searing lasagna and signature Gambler steak were as close as I could come to fine dining on a student's budget. The straw-clad chianti bottles I recalled were no longer there, but otherwise the place looked pretty much unchanged. Except, that is, for a general dinginess that is a sure sign of a restaurant that has been going downhill for some time. And the Gambler, which in the past had always been a surefire winning bet, was a gristly bust.
I read that three Chapel Hill businessmen bought several items when the restaurant's contents were auctioned off Saturday, in the hopes of one day returning them to their rightful place in a resurrected Rathskeller. In the meantime, it's the Rat of 30 years ago, not what it had become in recent years, that I choose to remember.
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