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Ernie’s buys cross-street rival

Susan Wood, Tahoe Daily Tribune
Dan Thrift/Tahoe TribuneFrank Susztar, right, talks about the old days with Barbara Atwell on Tuesday morning at Frank's Restaurant.
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An era marked by a good breakfast and a place to hang your hat will come to an end at South Lake Tahoe on Thursday, when Frank’s Restaurant closes its doors.

The eatery, located along a strip once referred to as “restaurant row,” was established in 1954 by Frank Lyons, who died six years ago.

Today’s Frank, Susztar that is, wants to enjoy his retirement years continuing to ski, spending time with his three children and traveling with his wife Irmgard.

They sold the business on U.S. Highway 50 to Paul Bruso, who owns Ernie’s Coffee Shop across the street.

The selling price, like Susztar’s age and the number of years the couple’s been married, is undisclosed. The sale is due to close escrow this week.

When the Susztars bought the business in 1977 for $15,000, they didn’t hold many expectations, Irmgard said.

“We just wanted to see what would happen,” Irmgard said.

Before that, the Susztars worked for Del Webb’s Sahara Tahoe — he, in the House of Lord gourmet restaurant and she, in the showroom. Her favorite performer was Elvis Presley whom she saw many times.

He was brought up in Hungary, where he escaped the revolution in 1956. She’s from Germany.

“We’ve been running a restaurant for over 25 years, so I guess we’re survivors,” Irmgard said.

They met as restaurant workers at the Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite National Park. At that time, the rooms cost about $85. Now, the discounted rooms are double that rate.

Frank said he chased girls, and consequently caught up to Irmgard.

Through the years, the pair has learned the give and take when it comes to marriage and elbow room in the kitchen.

“Everybody has to compromise,” she said.

Even some of the regular customers have taken this adage to heart.

Barbara Atwell, who has frequented the joint about three times a week since it opened, reflected on sentimental times at Frank’s. This includes times when they “agreed to disagree,” she said.

“If you only see people you agree with, how boring is that?” she asked. She sat to chat with Frank at the table Tuesday, as he yelled, “Hey Jose,” to another regular customer.

Atwell and Susztar sometimes fought about politics, sex and religion in a classic banter between liberal and conservative at the neighborhood diner, Atwell said.

But the friendly conversation often echoed family struggles, as they grew up together.

“Frank’s is a social place where you meet people you haven’t seen for a while,” Atwell said. “It’s the first place you find out where there’s a car accident and whether there’s been a murder in town.”

It’s also a place where one could find refuge from a severe snowstorm, Frank said.

And then, there’s the food that has made it famous.

Besides the traditional breakfast and lunch menu served between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m., the Susztars threw in a few specialty items. Atwell enjoyed the cabbage rolls and avocado and jack cheese omelettes.

Bruso, with business partners Bueno and Marty Ketelson, plans to operate the restaurant with 90 percent of the menu when they reopen April 1. This includes Frank’s sausage patty, corned beef hash and crepes, Bueno said. He once ran the Chart House and Los Tres Hombres.

Some of the current employees will stay on with the new establishment — to be named Bert’s.

Bert’s is due to undergo a remodeling job across from Ernie’s that will double the breakfast pad’s size in the following year.

“Frank’s is all about Tahoe history, and people create that history for you. We want to continue that history,” Bruso said.


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