Grilled bratwurst and mountains of sauerkraut. Convivial environs and spirited music. Beer by the barrel. Nothing says autumn better than Oktoberfest, that two-week feast of food and drink celebrated in Munich with the kind of gusto Washingtonians generally reserve for the Fourth of July.
Baronial portions, reasonable prices and plenty of gemutlichkeit, or good cheer, are what one can expect in the capital's German restaurants, three of which plan to celebrate Oktoberfest with special menus, special beer and entertainment.
Cafe Berlin, 322 Massachusetts Ave. NE, 543-7656. Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 4 to 11 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Appetizers $1.95 to $5.45, salads $3.35 to $7.25, dinner entrees $8.95 to $14.95. All major credit cards accepted.
Liver dumplings and dessert, eaten under the stars. Those are just a few of the things that make this neighborly Teutonic outpost on Capitol Hill so appealing.
On a clement fall evening, I'd opt to sit outdoors on the brick patio, surrounded by bushes strung with tiny white lights. And I wouldn't miss ordering a hefty plate of pigs' knuckles, cooked so that the meat practically falls from the bones, or perhaps the tender rahmschnitzel, veal laced with a light mushroom cream sauce, and served with that German comfort food known as spaetzle (boiled egg dumplings). Then I'd wash it all down with a mug of the raspberry-tinged beer, berliner weisse.
Like much of the food, the service at Cafe Berlin is likely to transport you abroad; at dinner recently, our waitress spoke more German than English, and her manner was spirited and good-natured as she guided us through the meal. Cafe Berlin is not without flaws. Its dumplings are pasty and heavy. Its paprika-dusted roast chicken lacked much flavor. And its potato salad tastes oddly sweet.
Still, there's much to admire here, including some terrific accompaniments -- not the least of which are those richly flavored, lightly molded liver dumplings. And the stellar desserts, authentically served with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream, are the stuff of tradition and good taste: Among the best are the flourless cherry-almond cake, the homey, dense cheesecake, and almost any of the fruit-laced confections, including a knockout gooseberry cake.
Cafe Mozart, 1331 H St. NW, 347-5732. Open 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Appetizers $1.25 to $5.95, salads and sandwiches $2.95 to $6.95, entrees $5.95 to $14.95. All major credit cards accepted.
At the bustling Cafe Mozart, the greeting is warm and the service is motherly; the waitress might put her arm on your shoulder as she takes your order, and later scold you for not finishing your schnitzel. Moreover, the setting -- a long and narrow deli followed by several small, tightly packed and low-ceilinged dining rooms -- could easily pass for any German weinstube (tavern). There's so much going on here that the Cafe Mozart publishes its own newsletter, detailing everything from its nightly music schedule (string duets, accordion players and Viennese pianists, of course) to its carryout lunch boxes for less than $5.
Good cheer? Ja. Good food? That depends.
A basket of bread -- heaped with slices of rye, pumpernickel and such -- gets things off to a good start. And, as at every other German restaurant, portion size can't be faulted here: The smoked pork loin, tender and well-browned, is enough food to fuel a trek through the Black Forest when combined with a savory (if dry) bread dumpling and either red cabbage or sauerkraut. And while the holstein schnitzel, topped with a fried egg and flanked with toast points of red caviar and salmon, lacks much seasoning, it is lots of meat, perfectly cooked and juicy throughout.
Abundant, if merely filling, are the paprika-stoked beef goulash and the spongy weisswurst (veal sausage) platter. As for side dishes, if you have a choice, opt for the spaetzle over the potato salad.
For a light finish -- and you'll need one after a meal here -- try the "bavarian fruit" -- spongecake layered with custard and topped with a collage of fresh fruits -- or the satisfactory and more daintily portioned apple strudel, redolent of cinnamon and plumped with raisins.
Old Europe, 2434 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 333-7600. Open 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 12:30 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, 12:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Appetizers $2.75 to $5, dinner entrees $10.15 to $17.20. All major credit cards accepted.
"The chef is right off the boat," announced our waitress at Old Europe. To be sure, the food here is, with few exceptions, as authentically German as one could hope, starting with a homey wurstsalat (sausage salad) and ending with a gigantic wedge of very good and not-too-sweet nougat sahne, chocolate cake layered with a filling of mocha-flavored whipped cream.
Two of my favorite dishes are the meaty, onion-covered zwiebelrostbraten (rib steak) and the moist and slightly smoky pork loin. No less comforting are the light and fluffy dumplings and the brassy, caraway-spiked sauerkraut. "Schnitzel Old Europe" is ill-served by a vapid hollandaise topping, although the veal itself was exceptional, with a delicately crisp surface -- but nothing so special as to warrant its price of $17.
The long dining room, crammed with bric-a-brac, is the tourist's version of the ubiquitous German beer hall, with every inch of wall space devoted to Teutonic trappings. Service is efficient, knowledgeable and gracious. Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.