DECIDING WHERE TO eat in Baltimore is never easy, for the choices dazzle in their variety. Want a table with a view? Feast at one of the sleek Harborplace restaurants. Need to give your wallet a rest? Head for the oyster bar in the Lexington Market or a blue-collar restaurant for a well-cooked, meat-and-potatoes meal. Ethnic food? This is a city where the phrase really means something. Little Italy is the place for a few tortellini, or sample lamb and eggplant at one of the Greek places on Eastern Avenue.
And then, of course, you could try Haussner's--famed for its "masterpieces in art and dining." Why not?
Your first sight on entering the restaurant will be a deep case filled with Galle' glass, porcelains, putti, statues, 18th-century etchings and assorted bric-a-brac. Off to the right you see a bar labeled "Strictly Stag," although the presence of a women inside hints that the sign is a memento of the past, not a statement of current policy. The walls inside the bar glow with painted nudes; many of the red-lipped, long-haired beauties are of World War II vintage, according to one connoisseur.
Beside the door are framed verses by the late poet laureate Vincent Godfrey Burns of Maryland:
"Oh what a rare and heavenly treat,
Whenever you're hungry and long to eat,
To go to Haussner's and what a sight,
The paintings, the sculptures, all so bright . . ."
To the left you spot cases of a different sort, lined with appetizing pastries and cakes. Beyond, the dining area stretches into the distance, its walls encrusted with paintings--about 600 of them.
But you are not destined to explore these realms just yet, if you've arrived on a Saturday night. Instead, you're whisked down to the waiting room. In the old days, before Harborplace, your heart might sink upon finding around 500 other people waiting for the hike up to the dining room (there are no dinner reservations accepted). Now, more than likely, the line is not long and it moves briskly. If your friends will hold your place, you can while away the time looking at more sculpture, paintings and a ball of string reputed to be the world's largest (length, 337.5 miles; weight, 825 pounds; origin, many bundles of napkins).
By now you have probably noticed that this is no ordinary eating establishment. What other restaurant seeks to feed the spirit while nourishing the body? The person responsible for this phenomenon was William H. Haussner, a master chef from Germany who began in 1926 with a hole in the wall and a modest menu of pastries and sandwiches. Ten years later he bought five rowhouses on the current site and started converting them into an enormous restaurant seating 500 people.
During this time his wife, Frances, began collecting art; her first acquisition, "The Venetian Flower Vendor," by Eugene de Blaas, still hangs above the pastry counter. "My father opposed it at first, but then he got hooked and turned out worse than my mother," says Frances George, the Haussners' daughter. From the beginning, 19th-century European art was the couple's passion. As their house filled with art, the overflow was installed in the restaurant, where, as George says, "My parents hoped it would bring as much pleasure to the customers as to our family."
Indeed, it probably has. On a busy night, most customers are tucking into their hasenpfeffer and spaetzles or stuffed flounder rather than touring the collection. But the hundreds of painted figures gazing down amiably from the walls seem to give their blessing to the scene. They have also altered the usual idea of what constitutes a good table. "Some customers ask to sit next to a certain statue or painting," says Jerry Zaras, assistant manager. "When it has gone out for cleaning or restoration, they really get upset."
Customers often take a personal interest in the subject matter, which leans to the sentimental. Someone who likes dogs, according to Zaras, might take home a postcard, one of half a dozen free to customers, of Arthur Elsley's "I'se Biggest." It shows a small blond girl standing on a book to appear taller than her St. Bernard.
A visit to Haussner's is not quite like one to the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore or the Baltimore Museum of Art. For one thing, those institutions do not own portions of what may be the largest painting in the world: "Pantheon de la Guerre," a battle scene painted by 28 artists and displayed in its full glory only at the Chicago World's Fair in the 1930s. It was then dismantled and stored many years in a 10-ton, zinc-lined crate the size of two boxcars. When it was put up for sale many years later, the Haussners' only competitors were scrap dealers lusting after the zinc. Most of the painting is now at the Liberty Memorial, a war memorial in Kansas City, but you can still see two panels upstairs in the "museum," which doubles as a banquet room for private parties.
Nowadays few art lovers think sentimentality and size add up to quality, and the Haussner collection has received its share of criticism. Frances George speaks indignantly of a recent magazine article that she says implied the paintings were bought primarily to fill every available space on the walls, with thrift the main consideration.
But the collection cannot be dismissed so easily, for the family did not buy artwork only in company with scrap dealers. Many of its acquisitions came from the estates of Henry Walters, founder of Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore merchant Isaac Loeb Strauss and Jerome Buonaparte, Napoleon's brother. The revival of interest in 19th-century art over the past few years has brought an awareness that a number of these works are quite fine. William Johnston, assistant director of the Walters Art Gallery, goes over a few of the high points: "The 'Alma Tadems' "Entrance to the Theatre" was formerly a centerpiece of the Vanderbilt collection in New York . . . There are two pastels by Fritz Thaulow, Gauguin's brother-in-law, that are quite nice . . . Look for the 'Boy With Lobster Biting Hand' . . . They have some nice Bohemian glass . . . The watercolors by Daniel Ridgeway Knight are worth looking at."
Visiting scholars of 19th-century art always ask to go to Haussner's, according to Johnston, who has escorted many of them there. Another indication of the collection's respectability is the fact that museums regularly ask to borrow paintings for their exhibitions; two are scheduled to arrive in Washington shortly for a show at the National Museum of American Art.
The Haussner family is adamant about not selling any works of art. It is all the more charming, then, to hear a story told by Sona Johnston, associate curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art and, like her husband, an expert on 19th-century art. Pleased to find that the Haussners owned a fine painting by French artist Rosalee McGill, she asked to borrow it for study. After several months, she called Frances Haussner to arrange its return. "Would you like to keep it for the museum?" came the reply.
Haussner's follows many of the same conservation practices as museums, a process that Frances George obviously views in the same light as the restaurant's mission of nourishing people. "See that painting of the ducks, how it looks healthy and fed? It's just been cleaned. That dull, tired-looking one is due to go out next." The ventilation system, which she says is unusually efficient for a restaurant, draws off smoke and keeps the atmosphere humid for the benefit of the paintings. As in museums, the security system is tight, although someone once did spirit away a nude statue's figleaf.
Haussner's has food too. In fact, that's one reason people go there. It is known by natives as a place where you never get a bad meal and never get overcharged--and if you think that's damning by faint praise, count the number of restaurants you know that meet those two conditions.
This is a restaurant where people talk and eat with gusto, clearing out the bread basket once or twice and topping off copious portions of the main dishes with coconut cream pie or apple strudel. The menu is vast (90 entrees and 30 vegetables), as though the Haussners decided that a restaurant serving 2000 meals a day should offer a menu of proportionate size. The staff insists that there are no specialties, but it is clear that German dishes and seafood predominate. You can eat softshell crabs in the summer and game during the cold months, but mostly the menu stays about the same from year to year. "The secret is consistency, not to improvise," says Frances George. It is somehow comforting to know that the next time you come, "sour beef with Tyrolian and potato dumplings one veg" and "crab imperial two veg" will still adorn the menu.
Going to Haussner's is a little like having dinner at your grandmother's (if she is the old-fashioned type)--you know they'll make sure you get your vegetables. In some Washington restaurants, vegetables are considered a bit gauche, and the closest you will come after a search of the menu is a watercress salad. At Haussner's you can get fresh buttered squash, stringbeans, stewed tomatoes, creamed spinach, three or four kinds of dumplings. And if the red cabbage is a little too sweet and the brussels sprouts are slightly overcooked, the fried eggplant is superb--surely no small feat for a kitchen operating on such a large scale.
This sense that a benevolent being is looking after your nutritional interests is no accident, for Haussner's not only guarantees fresh rather than frozen food, but makes a concerted effort to avoid additives in common use among restaurants. The kitchen staff uses lemon juice instead of sodium bisulfite to keep potatoes white and MSG is present in only one commercially prepared seafood seasoning mix. "The customers love it and so far we can't seem to make a substitute without MSG that tastes the same," says Frances George.
The staff, 200 strong, contributes to the customers' feeling of being cared for. Regardless of age, the waitresses have a maternal air and give the impression of being seasoned, of knowing the answer to just about any question you might ask. Partly that's because they are seasoned. Other restaurants have trouble hanging on to staff for six months, but Haussner's employes linger for decades (one cook has been there 55 years). The other reason is careful training. For example, George assembles the staff each Wednesday morning for a tasting of one menu item so they can tell customers what it is like. Old-fashioned service is also achieved in part through a modern tool: the computer. If you ask for a low-salt or wheatless dish, the waitress can suggest several alternatives, after consulting a computer analysis covering every menu item.
Outsiders from Washington and other places show up at Haussner's, but the backbone of the business is Baltimoreans who return year after year. They don't read about the restaurant in a newspaper review--it is part of their lives, growing up in a city where eating out is more often for pleasure than for business or convenience, George explains. "People are more settled. Children buy houses down the street from their parents. In Washington, you have a more transient population that treats eating out as a matter of course. Here it's more for special occasions." On such occasions, people often choose Haussner's.
You should choose Haussner's, too, at least once, if you are interested in art, food or Baltimore. When you go, be sure to look for the cameo carved on a perfect nautilus shell that was never cut out. It is a charming curiosity--like the restaurant itself.