Friday, January 28, 2000

Auf Wiedersehen to a Zinzinnati institution




BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Lenhardt's owners Erika and Joe Windholtz are turning over management to daughter Christy.
(Gary Landers photos)
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        Lenhardt's stops serving schnitzel Saturday night. Erika Windholtz, the restaurant's co-owner, knows what's sure to accompany the last order:

        A generous helping of tears.

        “After that last schnitzel leaves the kitchen, we'll sit down and cry,” she said, wiping crumbs from a just-vacated table in the Clifton Heights restaurant her parents opened 45 years ago. Finished with the table, she turned away to wipe her eyes.

        After Saturday, seven varieties of golden-brown, thinly-sliced veal cutlets will vanish from the menu. Wiener Schnitzel. Rahmschnitzel. Kaiser Schnitzel. Jaeger Schnitzel. All gone.

        The same for three other schnitzels with names that say German cooking and recipes that say long hours and hard work. Say auf Wiedersehen to their fork-tender goodness.

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Server Merrick Gledhill works one of the dining rooms.
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        The disappearance of schnitzel marks the end of an era at Lenhardt's. The restaurant has been serving these dishes on West McMillan since 1955.

        With the schnitzel goes the restaurant's name. After Saturday, Lenhardt's closes for remodeling. It's due to reopen in February with a new name — still to be decided. And a new owner. Christy Windholtz is taking over for her mom and dad, Erika and Joe.

        At first glance, this change looks like another link to Cincinnati's German heritage has been broken. After Saturday, Mecklenburg Gardens will be the only restaurant operating in the city limits with a menu and a history tied to Cincinnati's Germanic roots.

        Upon closer inspection, I don't see this link as broken. It has just been altered so the connection with tradition, heritage, the past and family can continue.

Family restaurant
        For a restaurant proud of its German ancestry, this move seems as extreme as cutting off sales of beer.

        Christy told me she will still make sauerbraten and potato pancakes from scratch. She'll marinate the beef and cook the sauce. She'll grate the potatoes and fry the pancakes, as needed, never in bulk.

        “I cook this way because it's in my blood,” Christy said. “This restaurant is my family's business. It's my life. Working here makes me feel whole and at home. And, I'm doing this so my parents can finally enjoy life — outside of this restaurant.”

        Erika and Joe plan to ease into semiretirement. They promise to cut back their 80-hour work weeks. “Maybe to 40,” Erika said. She will still make the restaurant's desserts: strudel, tortes, pies and rice pudding.

        “I can't leave Christy all by herself,” she said. She can't leave the restaurant, either. There are too many happy memories in this building that began life as a mansion. Nineteenth-century beer baron Christian Moerlein gave the grand home to his daughter as a wedding gift.

        In the kitchen, Erika can stand at her worktable and look out the window at the house where she grew up. She fled Communist Yugoslavia with her German-speaking parents and arrived in Cincinnati in 1953. She started working at the restaurant when she was 15.

        She met Joe at Lenhardt's. He worked at the hardware store down the street. She was his waitress.

        Joe has had trouble lately with his eyes. He can't see

        well enough to continue trimming the veal or frying the meat. He's trained employees to do the job. But no one wants to stick with it. So, the schnitzel must go.

        “This kind of work,” Joe said as he carefully trimmed fat and bones and turned a side of veal into cutlets, “is a lost art.”

No compromise
        Erika, Joe and Christy Windholtz appeal to my German heart. They have high standards. And they can't be lowered.

        They don't do things half-way. With schnitzel, as in life, they do things the right way or no way. They could serve frozen veal patties, already breaded and primed to micro wave. Instead, they go to the trouble of using fresh veal Joe cuts by hand. Then Erika and Christy sprinkle the meat with bread crumbs made in their kitchen and fry it in a sizzling cast-iron skillet. If they can't do it like this, they'd rather not do it at all.

        I wonder what the future holds for Lenhardt's. Christy has many plans for the old place, hoping to marry what worked in the past to what can bring in new customers in the future.

        She wants to change the family business so it will last at least another three generations. I wish her well. Still, when they serve that last piece of schnitzel tomorrow night, my German heart will ache.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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