Legendary Bonn Restaurant Shuts: Where Leaders Shaped the World over Schnitzel

By in Bonn

A merry Boris Yeltsin dived under the table here. John F. Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle, Mikhail Gorbachev -- you name them, they've all dined at Maternus, an unlikely VIP restaurant that served local dishes in Bonn, the West German capital. Its closure this week is awakening memories of its Cold War heyday, and of Bonn's forgotten role in shaping the nation.

Photo Gallery: The Glory Days of Bonn Restaurant Maternus Photos
Stadtarchiv und stadthistorische Bibliothek Bonn/ Fotografische Sammlung/ Camillo Fischer

When Maternus closes for the last time this Friday in Bonn, the former West German capital, the lights will go out on an almost-forgotten piece of postwar history.

The guest list of this unpretentious restaurant, which has served basic dishes like Schnitzel and pot roast for 63 years, reads like a global Who's Who of the Cold War era: US Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan came here, as did French President Charles de Gaulle and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, not to mention German Chancellors from Willy Brandt to Helmut Kohl.

Its dark, wood-panelled walls discreetly soaked up their murmurs. While ordinary diners tucked into their dumplings, they could eavesdrop on Peter Ustinov regaling his host with anecdotes at the next table, or glance at ministers huddled in the corner forging the next government coalition.

The horsetrading, the plots and the gossip wafted around the tables like the cigarette smoke that has stained the ceiling a rich brown over decades.

"It was a kind of political salon, you could say the living room of Bonn's senior politicians," Hans-Dietrich Genscher, 85, the former foreign minister, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

'A Piece of the Rhineland'

"When I had state visitors here and wanted to offer them something a bit more private after hosting official banquets in the Redoute palace, I'd tell them there's a great place near here, Maternus. And we'd go there. It showed them a piece of the Rhineland."

Maternus is tucked in a side street in the Bonn district of Bad Godesberg, a spa town of parks and villas where many diplomats and civil servants were quartered for half a century until the government moved to Berlin in 1999, nine years after unification.

The restaurant, with framed photos of its illustrious guests lining its walls alongside folksy pewter jugs and decorative plates, is closing because the owner, head chef Erwin Drescher-Maternus, is retiring.

Visitors say the restaurant owed much of its charm to the landlady Ria Maternus, an exuberant, jovial Rhinelander, petite but with a towering charisma, who would greet regulars with a kiss on the cheek and had a penchant for dancing on her tables. She died in 2001.

"Ria was an incredible landlady," recalled veteran broadcaster Friedrich Nowottny, one of West Germany's leading political commentators. "She was warm, always cheerful in her Rhineland way, had an incredible personal presence toward her customers, and I mean all of them regardless of rank or political status."

Ria liked to party. "She loved to sing although she couldn't," said Drescher-Maternus who joined the restaurant as a cook in 1969 at the age of 22 and has run it for the last 11 years since he inherited it from her. She adopted him in the 1990s. "We're were always fully booked in those days and we'd often be open till four or five. That didn't bother her. She liked it."

More a Capital Village Than a Capital City

Maternus was by no means a gourmet restaurant. It served solid Rhineland cuisine and an impressive array of local wines. "It owed its success partly to Bonn's limited gastronomic possibilities," said Nowottny.

Despite Ria's charm, it is hard to imagine a single restaurant gaining such prominence in other political centers. But sleepy Bonn, on the banks of the Rhine, was no ordinary capital. It was always meant to be a temporary seat of government, and to hand its role on to Berlin if and when the day of German unification came.

An old joke summed up how people saw the town. "Does this place have a nightlife?" asks a visitor. "It certainly does," replies the host. "But the lady's gone to Cologne tonight."

Peter Norman, a British journalist who worked in Bonn in the 1970s, recalls that he was struck by how open it was. "I spotted Genscher walking across the market square carrying a string bag full of vegetables with no security around him at all. And I got into parliament without showing any credentials and bumped into Helmut Schmidt, who was finance minister at the time, and had a long chat with him."

That openness even extended to espionage at times.

Norman said that the day after a German newspaper claimed Nikolai Portugalov, the correspondent for the Novosti Soviet news agency, was the KGB's chief in Bonn, Portugalov attended a news conference and, like any journalist, asked Schmidt a routine question. "And Schmidt answered without batting an eyelid."

Its smallness reflected the modesty of a young, uncertain West German republic chastened by the crimes of the Third Reich, tied to the apron strings of the US and preoccupied with finding its role in Europe and the world. The Bonn republic was a far cry from today's increasingly assertive Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is browbeating European neighbors into crippling austerity programs in the euro crisis.

The threat of the nuclear annihilation, at the back of most people's minds at the time, was especially present in West Germany which would have been among the first battlefields if the Cold War had turned hot. Little Bonn teemed with spies. Many of them ate at Maternus.

Shevardnadze And The Missing Fish

In an interview, Genscher recalled an awkward moment in Maternus during a state visit by Gorbachev and then-Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in the summer of 1989. Helmut Kohl, the chancellor at the time, was giving Gorbachev a dinner in his residence, so Genscher invited Shevardnadze to his own home in Wachtberg near Bonn.

He had asked the Foreign Ministry canteen to provide the dinner and drive it to his house. But just before Shevardnadze arrived, the cook informed Genscher that an empty dish had been brought by mistake and that the "wonderful fish" he had promised was still at the Foreign Ministry miles away.

It was too late to fetch it so that when Shevardnadze arrived, Genscher proposed that they go to Maternus. When the entourage filed in to the restaurant with security guards and interpreters, Genscher spotted a colleague at the next table. It was state secretary Waldemar Schreckenberger, who was celebrating his retirement with the heads of the three branches of German intelligence and a man Genscher believed to be the CIA resident in Bonn.

"We walked in there and they'd already had a few drinks," Genscher said. After a while Schreckenberger got up and asked to be introduced to Shevardnadze.

"Then he proceeded to introduce all the intelligence chiefs, giving their full titles. The Soviet interpreter had difficulty keeping up," said Genscher. "I thought what must Shevardnadze be thinking, maybe the fish story was a trick! I sensed the mood had turned strange and I said, Herr Shevardnadze, when you get back to Moscow you can tell the head of the KGB: all the guys you've got in your files, I've met them in person."

Everyone relaxed and Shevardnadze, pleased to be in a public restaurant for the first time in 20 years, sent Ria a large bunch of flowers. "He was so happy, it was a big experience for him," said Genscher.

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