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Werner's serves up its last lunch Friday

Werner's luncheonette, a downtown fixture since 1950 that was a gathering spot for politicians and lawyers as well as office workers and citizens serving jury duty, is closing Friday.

Coming just a few months after the demise of Burke's restaurant, the closing of Werner's leaves downtown Baltimore without a single eatery dating from before the urban renaissance of the early 1960s — at least none with the pedigree of Werner's.

One by one, they've closed: the House of Welsh in 1998, Marconi's in 2005 and Martick's in 2008, not to mention dozens of luncheonettes, diners and cafeterias.

The crowds came for breakfast platters, homemade soups, square-deal hamburgers and turkey salad sandwiches. Milk was still poured from a refrigerated dispenser, and the Werner's milkshake was often counted among the best in town. Although there had been attempts to freshen up the cuisine, Werner's was one of the last places downtown where a customer could still get a braunschweiger sandwich.

Malcolm Brisker and Tom Goss, lawyers who work nearby, came to Werner's on Thursday for a late lunch, their last.

"This place was an icon for the legal community," Brisker said. "You would always see judges here or attorneys general." Goss, who said he had been coming to Werner's since 1981, said, "I will miss this place. It's the last of a dying breed."

The Redwood Street luncheonette, which was opened by Werner Kloetzli Sr. in 1950, was also a longtime favorite of movie and television location scouts, who found timeless appeal in the luncheonette's chrome and maple Art Deco interior. Barry Levinson filmed scenes there for "Liberty Heights." More recently, Werner's could be seen on HBO's "The Wire" as a lunch haunt for Mayor Tommy Carcetti.

Hearing about the closing of Werner's, a real-life Baltimore mayor, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, said, "What an institution. I remember they were filming a movie on that street, and you'd see Danny DeVito and Richard Dreyfuss sitting at the little table up front. You'd see everyone there, doctor, lawyer, movie star and Indian chief."

The movie was "Tin Men." Dreyfuss and DeVito signed the backs of their chairs, the signatures visible but faded, dated "9-8-86." "Ladder 49" spent a week filming in and around the restaurant, and numerous television commercials were also filmed there, according to Ruth Kloetzli, granddaughter of Werner Sr. and owner of the luncheonette from 1993 to 2005.

Asked if there was anything in the restaurant she'd like to reclaim, Kloetzli mentioned the maple booths, a relic from an era when Americans had smaller bodies, and the neon Werner's sign that hangs in the back of the luncheonette. The sign is not original to the cafe, though. It was made for "Tin Men."

Employees said they were told about the closing Wednesday. Sheila Morris, a waitress at Werner's for seven years, was uncertain about her next move but said she was proud of her association with the restaurant. "We still serve real turkey that we roast here."

"And real mashed potatoes," added waitress Tonita Parham, who was also unsure about her future beyond Werner's last lunch.

Morris said Werner's fortunes started declining rapidly this past Christmas, and she chalked it up to the economy and to competition in the neighborhood, including the Big Apple Tree Cafe, Cafe Bombay (now closed) on Lombard Street, and even the nearby culinary school, which serves lunch daily.

The staff at the restaurant say that last year, owner Charles Kyle had turned over its operations to another man. The restaurant property is leased from the building's owners, the law firm of Gordon Feinblatt. Kyle could not be reached for comment.

Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, a historical preservationist, said she was always sure to include Werner's on her architectural tours of Baltimore.

"Every walking tour I gave of downtown Deco ended with Werner's as the dessert. In 1987, I gave a citywide bus tour of Art Deco buildings to members of the Society for Commercial Archeology, many hailing from places heavy on Art Deco architecture, but at the end of the day, Werner's was what they talked about."

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

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