Belt-tightening: Schnitzelhouse fiddles while VDOT yearns

If you've driven down Fontaine Avenue lately, you've probably noticed the new sign heralding the arrival-­ or reincarnation– of the Schnitzelhouse, or Ludwig's Schnitzelhouse.

 Who is this Ludwig, anyway? Ludwig's actually the middle name of the restaurant's original owner, Hans Ludwig Gerstl.

Just a few months ago, Gerstl's son, also named Hans Gerstl, bought the well-established fine Swiss and German dining spot from Ed and Claire Gisler, who, much to the disappointment of their loyal customers, had decided it was time to retire.

With the new name and a menu that focuses primarily on German specialties like schnitzels and homemade apple streudel, Gerstl pays tribute to his father and the restaurant's roots-­ which also happen to be his roots. Basically born and raised in the Schnitzelhouse-­ or, at least in Charlottesville– Gerstl, 38, left a career in the corporate world when the opportunity to reclaim the family business emerged.

"I probably wouldn't be running a restaurant if it weren't the Schnitzelhouse," Gerstl tells Dish. "My decision was really motivated by the restaurant's sale." Now the former culinary manager for places like Disney World's California Grill will be running the entire show himself-­ from preparing the food to completely redecorating the restaurant's interior.

"I'm trying to get away from that Bavarian 'oompah' look and give it a more elegant, upscale feel," Gerstl says. This transformation involves painting the formerly red walls navy blue and introducing strong accent pieces like an antique gun cabinet, a family heirloom. He hopes to finish the makeover shortly after May 1.

In addition to holding onto the family business, Gerstl also wants to hold onto the restaurant's sign-­ and we mean literally. Like his father before him, Gerstl promises to be an influential player in the debate over the proposed widening of Fontaine Avenue, a long-contested (since the early '90s) project that could result in the loss of the Schnitzelhouse sign and, perhaps even more detrimental, a chunk of the front parking lot.

At the time of our interview, Gerstl Jr. had invited neighborhood business owners to an open discussion about the project and its potentially adverse effects.

To find out more about the Fontaine debate, Dish turned to city neighborhood planner Mary Joy Scala, who explained that this proposed VDOT project-­ which would add a middle turning/emergency lane, two bike lanes, and sidewalks with a landscape buffer on both sides of the street-­ has actually been put on the back burner until 2007.

The reason? You guessed it: VDOT's out of money. From her recollection of the plans, Scala didn't think the Schnitzelhouse would be affected significantly by the eventual widening. She told us that the project, which would add only about four feet to the current curb-to-curb width (from 40 to 44 ft.), might endanger the sign, but probably not the parking lot.

So why doesn't the City step in to speed things up? After all, don't roads, sidewalks, and landscaping fall primarily under the city's jurisdiction?

"As long as Fontaine is on VDOT's priority list, the city isn't going to do one blessed thing," laments Liz Kutchai, President of the JPA Neighborhood Association. Why should the City spend its precious funds when the state is promising to do the job, someday? Speaking for the residents of Fontaine/JPA, Kutchai says most would be willing to sacrifice a slice of their front yard for sidewalks, but that they honestly can't see the need for an extra car lane. Unless, of course, you consider the game-day theory.

"Traffic is only an issue on seven Saturdays in the Fall," Kutchai pointed out, "whereas the lack of sidewalks is a major safety problem every day all year."

Both Kutchai and Scala believe that projects like the Hillsdale Connector, which should alleviate congestion at the Hydraulic-29 intersection, will dominate the city's priority list. Which means that, even with a belly full of schnitzels, Fontaine Avenue will just have to hold off on loosening its belt and growing in girth.

In the meantime, Ludwig's can hold onto its sign for a few more years, at least.