Two of the media elite are preparing to dine. They cruise Baltimore's streets borne by zephyrs of purest irony. Their superiority is evident to all about them, but most particularly to themselves.

The object of their scorn--and their drive--is a 73-year-old restaurant called Haussner's, tucked into a hamlet named Highlandtown in the city's eastern sector. Haussner's has been snickered at for generations in the Middle Atlantic's smarter precincts for its kitsch sensibility. It is known as a place of thick gravy, bad art, towers of enameled hair, and the heavy Baltimore accents that can drive any refined person to madness.

From the outside, owing to ill-advised remodeling probably supervised by the same evil genius who sheathed Baltimore's brick row houses in pink-and-gray Formstone, it looks like the Fuehrerbunker with better parking. It huddles on a dying corner surrounded by Formstone-enflamed houses, ratty shops and pizza parlors.

Our pilgrims park, preparing for a delicious experience in Yahooland. They've chosen this night because it's a last rite, and they are attracted to catastrophe. Haussner's is closing, its museum-like display of Crassus Americanus baltimoronus to be lost forever. As media elite, they know this development will be announced in tomorrow's paper, at which point normalcy will depart the corner of Eastern and Clinton forever, to be replaced by a Mardi Gras of sentimentality, gravy, flashbulbs, lines and the sobs of the ancient.

They stroll in.

And, of course, they fall in hopeless cornball love with the joint.

The Art of Dining

There are few last, best places left on Earth, and after tonight, there will be one fewer. Haussner's will close forever, eventually transmogrifying into the William and Frances Haussner Campus of the Baltimore International College, a culinary school that, presumably, will not allow its haughty young chefs to learn the mysteries of the Wiener schnitzel.

"It's just the right time," explains Frances Haussner George, known widely as Francie, the only child of founders William and Frances Haussner and, with husband Stephen George, inheritor of their mantle. Francie looks these days like Bea Arthur after learning of the death of a child, eyes blinking to fight back the odd tear, voice cracking, in counterbalance to the flintiness of a restaurant owner's practicality.

Other than that explanation, she is silent. Haussner's will simply close, its physical plant donated to the cooking school, its vast and fabled art collection dispersed at two auctions.

But there's a surprise: Haussner's 780 paintings and countless sculptures--long a joke, "art" with quotation marks--have, by market whimsy, suddenly become quite valuable. On Oct. 2, Sotheby's will auction the higher-end items, 160 pieces in all, including a Whistler and a Rembrandt etching, for an expected $8 million. That figure removes the quotation marks and shoves them somewhere unpleasant.

But that's in the future. For now, the reality of closing hangs in the air like a pall of mourning as Francie contemplates the last stop of the gravy train.

"The restaurant was never going to be sold," she says. "It was going to die or go on. I know my father [who died in 1963] would be pleased with my decision. My mother [who still lives] is at home with it."

A tourist sensation since the '40s, the restaurant is still profitable, Francie allows, though it is in decline. It serves 900 meals on a typical Saturday, down from the 1,500 of its halcyon days. The buses still drop off the fleets of tourists, though not as frequently. The staff, once 210, now numbers 95.

"We've been together for so long," says Francie, 54, looking across the biggest dining rooms, a vast space crammed with people celebrating the food chain and waitresses administering them amid the wealth of painted and sculpted imagery.

The restaurant was opened in 1927 as a lunchroom by Bavarian emigre William Haussner. It grew to an establishment with three dining rooms, a male-only Stag Bar (since the '70s, open to both sexes) and a Xanadu of art, decorative art, plates and steins. And one very large ball of twine--napkin string--a legendary monument to Mrs. Haussner's philosophy of wasting nothing. Yes. Though it may house art great enough to interest Sotheby's, Haussner's is just as famous for an 850-pound, four-foot ball of string. (It, too, will be sold at auction, on Dec. 16 in the Baltimore area.)

As the restaurant grew in size, it grew in status. H.L. Mencken dined there until--this should surprise no one, given the iron Germanic wills of the two men--Mr. Haussner kicked him out forever, the contents of their tiff an undiscovered secret. It was--this probably will surprise no one either--Joe McCarthy's favorite place. German food, just like back in Wisconsin. Emmett Kelly, the other great clown of the '50s, ate there, too.

"We were the only place in town," remembers Francie.

In 1940 her mother bought her first painting, over the objections of her powerfully practical father. It still hangs over the pastry counter, "The Venetian Flower Vendor," by Austrian Eugene de Blaas, one of many 19th-century artists whose cheery work appealed to Mrs. Haussner. The purchase began three decades of collecting. She paid no more than $3,200 for any piece.

The restaurant prospered under the proposition that if you soak it in gravy, they will come. But after the announcement that Haussner's would close, the proposition became: If you soak it in memory, they will come. People--some from as far away as London and Arizona--have stood in line for hours to get in. Floyd himself, with all his horizontal rain, couldn't drive the mourners from the bier--or the beer. At 10 a.m. Saturday, the line was around the block.

The lines, the spasms of nostalgia and sentimentality, the hysteria all raise a single question: Why? Restaurants close all the time, even old ones. But this phenomenon is different.

The answer is that Haussner's is not really a restaurant at all. It is not selling food, or art, but a sense of civilization.

It's a kind of enchanted glade, an artifact from a moment in history when the world made sense. Anger was repressed in self-discipline, bad manners were an affront to the soul, and everybody ate on linen. Behavior could be modified by exposure to beauty. Man's wild breast and furrowed brow could be soothed by glorious art.

Gone? Worse: Possibly it never existed except in the imagination, a lost golden age when we were good, or were innocent, or, failing that, at least kept our mouths shut until spoken to.

To enter Haussner's is to reclaim that lost, if fictitious, memory. It is--was--a sarcasm-free zone. Yes, call it kitsch. Call it cornball. Laugh at the spackled hair, the tourists, the brightly clad oldsters uncertainly navigating with their walkers, the density of the sauces, the overheard stories that begin, "That was back in '48. No, '47. No, wait, '49, Mary, Mary, it was '49, wasn't it?" Order a piece of meat, then try to find it without sonar, so sunken is it in a sea of what appears to be petroleum-waste product. The flavor? Well, there isn't one. What did you expect? Go to a restaurant if you want food that has taste; don't go to the Belfry of Western Man.

"Have you decided, hon?" asks a waitress, behind glasses an inch thick and a Bawlmer accent even thicker. She is one of a battalion, in starched white cotton, white shoes, white stockings, like a nurse of hunger, who will ultimately bring the meal on a little cart, so heavy is it.

But you look at the menu and how can you decide? The menu looks like a page from the densest Schopenhauer. So much food, food that hasn't been prepared in Washington, D.C., in 30 years.

"We're not pretentious," says Francie. "Nouvelle cuisine passed right over Highlandtown."

It's of a type that used to be called "continental." It flies from the fork to your arteries like a bat, leaking an oil slick of pure calories and enough cholesterol to kill your heart in a second. Vegetables? Thirty-seven on a typical day, all mushy. "We tried to lighten up," Francie says. "But we lost customers. So we went back to steaming them until they fell apart."

Entrees? Dozens, all brown. Veal Normandy. Baked Rabbit. Broiled Sweetbreads. Grilled Bratwurst. Hungarian Goulash. Yankee Pot Roast. Antelope Leg with Burgundy. Some is even tasty, like the Munich Platter, which proudly features every part of the pig except the snout and the oink.

Think about dessert. Pastries, weighing more than a brick? That famed strawberry pie, in a color that has no coefficient this side of the center of an explosion, in a consistency that is in some indeterminate state between liquid and solid, under a cumulus cloud of pure whipped cream? Or chocolate cake, heavy as depleted uranium. "Could I have a smallish piece?" asks a customer. "Hon," the waitress wearily explains, "there are no smallish pieces here."

Then, look at the art. It isn't displayed by the laws of tasteful minimalism so beloved in all the shiny magazines: No, it's crusted on, squished helter-skelter into every last available inch of the restaurant, jammed, crammed, mulched, squeezed, to soothe the savage heart of man and lift him toward gentility. All of it is instantly knowable: Ships at sea. Virgins at the window. Children playing in barns. Women in red. Nudes, heavy-bottomed and curvaceous, after the taste of the last century. Sculptures of men on horseback killing lions with spears. Rack on rack of bric-a-brac. Caesars? No, not salads, emperors. All of them. Every last blessed one, said to be one of three such collections in the world, marble big shots with breastplates and bangs, looking out across the tumult of the rear dining room as if hungry to feed diners to animals instead of animals to diners.

The crux of the collection is by that generation of forgotten academics obliterated by the rise of impressionism. They, too, are a monument to a well-ordered world, a time before Herr Doktor Freud and his disturbing theories changed our sense of the rigidity, the exactness, the rationality of it all. Here are the forgotten artists in the rush of being remembered all over again: Adolphe-William Bouguereau, J.L. Gerome, the wonderfully named Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, J.G. Brown, Albert Bierstadt, Adolph Schreyer.

"The Haussners bought what they liked," says William Johnston, assistant director and curator of 18th- and 19th-century art at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. "They didn't have a deep knowledge of art, but they had a good eye. And they began to acquire the work in the Depression when many private collections were broken up, and were able to get some amazing pieces."

He lists among the highlights Russian bronzes, the Whistler etching, a fragment of a battle scene by Edward Detais and "Entrance to a Theater" by Alma-Tadema.

Johnston says he loved to take visiting museum collectors to Haussner's when they came to Baltimore.

"You could always find pieces that surprised you," he says.

Occasionally, some refined person would remark to Francie on the collection's supposed banalities. "Don't worry about it, hon," Francie would say, "it'll never be yours."

She gets a good laugh over that one. But all in all, it's not a happy time. As the end nears, the wait staff still does its job, though now people rise and walk about, pull the Instamatic out. Francie is photographed more than a movie star, and favorite waitresses get the treatment, too. Everybody smiles the smiles of the professional, and if there's grief about, it is locked behind eyes blank with professional determination.

As the poet never said: This is the way it ends, not with a bang but with a gurgle, as the last slurp of gravy is ladled out, the last cabbage boiled in vinegar, the last strawberry pie slathered in whipped cream and the world becomes one degree less interesting.

How to get there: Don't even think about it.

CAPTION: Art, including a legion of Caesars, fills every nook at Haussner's, which closes after tonight.

CAPTION: Haussner's was as famous for its colossal ball of string as for its paintings.

CAPTION: "We're not pretentious," says Francie Haussner George. "Nouvelle cuisine passed right over Highlandtown."