For those of us who love Chapel Hill and its university, Charles Kuralt eloquently expressed how we feel about this "Southern Part of Heaven" in his 1993 speech at UNC's Bicentennial Celebration:"What is it that binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls or the crisp October nights... No, our love for this place is based upon the fact that it is as it was meant to be, The University of the People."Now, presumptuous as it may be to quibble with one of Carolina's most beloved sons, Kuralt left something out of his list of Chapel Hill icons ranking just below the People. The well is iconic, the bell is melodious, the stone walls are lovely, the October nights are glorious, but The Rathskeller ... oh, The Rat was delicious!Famous for its food, service, staff longevity, atmosphere and location, the Rat was a part of the Franklin Street scene for almost 60 years. Then, at noon on Dec. 14, 2007, the restaurant broke thousands of hearts when it shut down, the owner saying that it was a victim of a changed Franklin Street business climate, accounting problems and a dilapidated building.We do not know what the future holds for that vacant space just off Amber Alley, so let's look back at the Rathskeller's past and hope that it will somehow conjure a miraculous rebirth. The story begins with Edward Gustav "Papa D" Danziger, who because of his Jewish ancestry was forced to flee Austria after it was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938. Leaving behind a wife, children and a successful confectionery, Danziger arrived in the United States with only a few dollars, a suitcase and his candy recipes. After settling in Chapel Hill and relying on the skills learned in his apprenticeship and business career, he opened Danziger's Viennese Candy Kitchen in 1939. Located just across from campus, the shop sold coffee, cider, pastries and candies, and it quickly became one of the most popular establishments on Franklin Street.Papa D's wife and two children soon followed him to Chapel Hill, and the family settled down in the village, becoming an integral part of the community. After serving in the U.S. Army, Theodor M. Danziger, Papa D's youngest son, returned to Chapel Hill and entered the restaurant business. After deciding to utilize the area beneath Danziger's candy shop, Ted began clearing out the basement and carting away excavated dirt one car-trunk load at a time. In 1948, the Rathskeller opened in the newly constructed "basement," with its front door opening onto Amber Alley. In its early years, the establishment was basically a beer hall, appealing to the throngs of recently discharged servicemen who flocked to the university on the GI Bill. B.C. Hedgpeth, manager from 1951 to 1962, claimed that in the 1950s "[t]he only thing we had to eat ... was pretzels, and they were free, peanuts and Penrose hot sausages. Brother, that was it." Still, the Rat proved to be very popular, and within a few years Ted Danziger walked in on the manager beating the restaurant's walls with a sledgehammer. When Ted screamed "What are you doing?" Hedgpeth simply answered, "I'm expanding the place."Ted Danziger continued to operate the restaurant until he died in 1965, at which time his wife, Mary Alice "Bibi," took over the operation. She died in 1990, and for the next several years her estate owned and operated the Rat. In 1999, the administrators chose to sell the restaurant, and the Rat came close to shutting down after no one stepped forward to purchase it. At the last minute, however, Francis Henry, Ken Jackson, John Woodward and Brian Wilson -- all local businessmen -- banded together to buy the Chapel Hill legend. Henry eventually bought out the other partners and continued to operate the restaurant until it closed. The owner and those who loved the Rat held out hope that it would reopen, but those dreams were dashed on Feb. 2, 2008, when the entire contents of the venerable restaurant were confiscated by the N.C. Department of Revenue to pay delinquent withholding taxes. The items were immediately sold at a public auction.To countless alumni and Chapel Hill residents the Rat was more than just location and ambience; the food and the restaurant's staff also helped to make the place a Chapel Hill legend. Though it may have only served peanuts and pretzels in its early years, the Rat became famous for lasagna -- otherwise known as a "bowl of cheese" -- and for the "Gambler," whether it was single, double or even triple. A menu from the 1980s described the meat, which was brought to the table still sizzling on an iron "plate," as a "chewy, elongated, highly inedible half-pound rustled steer," but when served with peas, fries and an endless pitcher of sweet tea, it was the very essence of Rat haute cuisine for many diners. The Rat also claimed to be the first restaurant in North Carolina to serve pizza, though this assertion has not been verified.A favorite pastime while dining at the Rat was reading the more than a half-century of graffiti. Names, dates, drawings and all sorts of markings were scratched, gouged, drawn and painted on the booths, walls and practically every other bare spot in the Rat. Patrons had to read quickly, however, because their meals would arrive not long after the order was placed. Darting from room to room to kitchen, dodging patrons, pipes, tables, chairs and each other in the catacombs, the Rat's waiters ensured that the restaurant ran like a well-oiled machine. And it was no wonder, since many of them had been at the Rat for several decades. Long-timers such as Kenny Mann Sr., Jim Cotton and Ulysses Cozart ensured that generations of Tar Heels could experience the quirky charm and wonderful experience that was the Rat. The long-serving staff and unchanging character gave university alumni an anchor in an ever-changing world, allowing them to step back to their carefree undergraduate days.