Memories flowed like the beer on tap and so did the tears last week in the Old Heidelberg Rathskeller as patrons and employes mourned the closing of the 50-year-old German restaurant at 515 11th St. NW.
The Old Heidelberg was closed on June 8 because of a lawsuit filed in D.C. Superior Court by Patrick J. Attridge, owner of the century-old building, against proprietor Mihail Kristodoulakis, which alleges that he defaulted in rent payments and made unauthorized changes to the building's exterior.
Since the early l930s, the restaurant had been a refuge for government employes from the nearby offices of the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Justice and, before its demise, the Old Post Office. It had been a "second home" to longtime patrons and the waitresses who had worked there for decades.
With its closing, downtown Washington lost one more small, neighborhood restaurant to the relentless construction of office buildings and modern eateries. A spokesman for Attridge would not indicate what his plans are for the building.
"I have invested all my money in this place, and they're trying to take it away," said Kristodoulakis, fighting back tears as he served drinks to loyal customers who had come to pay their last respects.
Kristodoulakis, the proprietor since 1977, came to the United States from Crete in 1969 "for the American dollar, to live better."
He has denied the charges in the suit, which was filed March 24, claiming that he paid the rent according to the lease and that he did have authority to make changes including replacing glass around the entrance with redwood paneling. The suit is pending.
At the glum, nostalgic gathering last week, Annie Cullen, 62, a waitress at the restaurant for 31 years, clutched two bouquets of chrysanthemums given to her by a customer. She reminisced that in the early '50s, "Robert Kennedy frequently ate lunch here. He liked me because I used to make him laugh." But "I had no favorites," she quickly added. "Everyone who came through these doors made the history.
"This has never been the most beautiful place, but many children who came to this city to start new jobs would come in here and we would make them feel at home," said Cullen, a confident, slightly heavyset woman, who remembers covering up for husbands who tarried too late when their wives phoned to ask for them.
Located on the street floor of a three-story red brick building, the paneled restaurant was dimly lit by two single-bulb wall lamps hung from a ceiling criss-crossed by peeling white paint and ancient pipes. The view from the end of the bar in the back, across a drab alley, was of the rear of the old Peterson House, now the Lincoln House, where Abraham Lincoln died.
According to "Don't Tear It Down," a city-wide historic preservation group, the building was erected in 1873. Records do not indicate its use until 1914, when it was named the Dutch Inn. Other tenants between 1914 and 1930 included several tailors, furriers, an antique dealer, artists and clairvoyants.
The Old Heidelberg offered an inexpensive selection of American and German meals, including Wiener schnitzel, sauerbraten and a Reuben sandwich that was "the best in town, nice and sleazy," said one customer. Served on unremarkable red-and-white-checked tablecloths, the fare was "good, but not great," said another who was there for the farewell of laughter, tears and an occasional inebriated outburst.
"I have always been happy there," said Martha Hutchinson, 53, a native of Wetzlart, in what is now West Germany, who had been a waitress at the Old Heidelberg for 30 years. After exchanging kisses with friends and saying her final farewells, Hutchinson said she "cried and cried on 11th Street and told myself to keep going, keep going. I wish I could be there the rest of my life." Among her memories was being interviewed in the restaurant by researchers for the making of the television film "The Holocaust."
"They Cullen and Hutchinson would make sure we were eating right, like they were our grandmothers," said the customer who brought Cullen the flowers. "Many of my fellow employes would meet here. After they met Annie, we started calling this 'Annie's.' "
"They would always tell us when the specials were not fresh, when the food we requested was not good that day," said Richard Bochniewicz, an IRS employe. "During Lent, on Fridays, they would serve the best fresh fish I've ever tasted."
"I'll never forget the people, the food, the atmosphere, the fun," said Girty Stanford, a native of Bremerhaven, West Germany, who immigrated here with her American GI husband in l963 and was a patron for 13 years.
"This was like my second home. We used to sing 'Lili Marlene' and 'In Meunschen Steht ein Hofbrau,' " she recalled, her clear blue eyes staring into her scotch and ginger. A husky, exuberant woman with short, white-blond hair, she jumped from her chair and recited a chorus of "In Meunschen" as a jukebox played a German medley in the background.
"I met Annie and Martha the first day I came here and we have been great friends since," she said. "Here we ate pig knuckles and sauerbraten. Now there is no place to eat good German food anymore."
Elias Bantazodoulis, who bought the Astor Restaurant on 18th and M streets NW in 1977 after operating the Old Heidelberg for seven years, recalled that "visitors from Germany would come to our restaurant to eat our German food and talk to Martha to feel at home," and the crowds of FBI and Justice Department employes would stand around the bar drinking "50-cent drafts" on Friday afternoons.
Bantasodoulis said he was "upset like I lost my father. . . . Mike worked hard, and I feel sorry for him, but I think a combination of the poor economy and some changes Mike made hurt him."