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‘Grandma’s food’: How changing tastes are killing German restaurants

Aneta Tsankova serves customers at Old Europe in Washington. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

When you think of the quintessential German restaurant in the United States, you’re thinking of a place like Karl Ratzsch. Ever since it was founded by German immigrants in 1904, it had a menu full of schnitzel, spaetzle and hearty Bavarian staples. The interior was dark wood, with German coats of arms, hand-painted beer steins, a beautiful Bavarian cuckoo clock and servers in dirndls. The place was a Milwaukee institution: Frank Lloyd Wright, Liberace and President Nixon dined there. Karl Ratzsch’s was handed down through generations, and reached such acclaim that in 1980, members of the Ratzsch family were invited to a state dinner with President Jimmy Carter and the chancellor of West Germany, Helmut Schmidt.

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It didn’t last. In 1993, Karl Ratzsch III was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, with a suicide note left among the mounting bills. The restaurant stopped serving lunch for a period in 1995 because of dwindling customers. In 2003, the family sold it to employees. When it appeared the restaurant would close, those employees sold it to chef Thomas Hauck.

When he took over in 2016, the restaurant was filthy and not up to code. It had become “knicknacky,” he said, but not in a charming way. He counted 400 teddy bears, all covered in grime, plus Christmas decorations that had stayed up for years.

He was convinced that if he could just clean the place up and freshen up the menu, he’d bring in a new crowd. The regulars — people who had frequented the restaurant in its heyday — “were dying, literally.”

“I thought there would be a pride in the place,” he said. “Like, your parents loved it, you should see why you’ll love it, too.” He poured $300,000 into the renovation.

He did not recoup his investment. The regulars accused him of destroying the restaurant. Young people checked it out but didn’t come back, opting instead for ramen and Korean tacos and the kind of bright, casual spots where all of the servers look like models and avocado toast is on the menu. Karl Ratzsch closed last year.

“It’s a German restaurant that’s 114 years old,” Hauck said. “It’s not what the trend is; it’s just not.”

All across the country, German restaurants are calling it quits. In Portland, Ore., Der Rheinlander closed after 53 years in 2016. Another Portland restaurant, the Berlin Inn, closed and reopened as the Brooklyn House, with a vegan and gluten-free menu of “European comfort food,” before closing again, permanently. Outside of Boulder, Colo., the Black Forest Restaurant closed last summer after 59 years. The Olde German Schnitzel House in Hickory, N.C., served its last sauerkraut in 2014, lasting 10 years. One of Nashville’s oldest restaurants, Gerst Haus, died last month after 62 years. That’s 10 years longer than the Chicago Brauhaus, which closed in December.

So long to Knoxville’s GruJo’s German Restaurant. Farewell to Zum Rheingarten, in Stafford, Va. Auf Wiedersehen to Victor Koenig’s, which lasted 71 years on Long Island. Goodnight, Old Heidelberg, in Bethel, Conn.

According to Yelp data scientist Carl Bialik, German food ranked number 83 of the 100 biggest restaurant categories in growth. In a 2015 National Restaurant Association study, only 7 percent of respondents said they ate German food at least once a month — less than Italian (61 percent), Mexican (50 percent), Chinese (36 percent) and 11 additional categories, including Southeast Asian, and even Belgian. It tied French and Vietnamese, and eked out a small lead over Indian, Caribbean and Scandinavian food. Respondents said they were more likely to eat German food at home than at a restaurant. But the cuisine ranked high in familiarity. People know about German food, but apparently aren’t seeking it out.

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The biggest wave of German immigration was in the 1880s, followed by another after World War II. Germans, who settled mostly in the Midwest and Texas, were at one point America’s largest ethnic group, so their food has always been highly influential. Hamburger is from Hamburg, the frankfurter or hot dog is from Frankfurt and chicken-fried steak is just Americanized wienerschnitzel.

German food’s decline “reflects the cultural mix of this country toward more Latin American, Asian and African American culture, and less of the mainstay Germanic culture that influenced this country for many decades,” said Arnim von Friedeburg, an importer of German foods and the founder of “The cultural shift is going on, and German culture has to fight or compete to keep its relevance.”

The cuisine’s long history here might be part of the reason, too. It’s “Grandma’s food,” Hauck said. At a time when American eaters seem interested in sampling new-to-them cuisines from around the globe — Native American food is the new poke is the new Uighur is the new Filipino — German food seems stodgy. Not to mention that in the age of Instagram, it suffers from an acute case of brown.

It’s also hearty, heavy and boasts enough starches to make ketogenic, gluten-free Whole 30 adherents lose their minds — which makes it seem out of place in our current food culture.

“In German, it’s called gut bürgerliche küche,” said Alex Herold, the owner of Old Europe, a German restaurant in Washington celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. “Translated, it’s country-style comfort food,” what most Americans think of when they think about German food. “It’s that meat and potatoes stigma,” Herold said, even though in northern Germany, dishes are lighter and have much in common with trendy Scandinavian food.

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That heaviness carries over to the style of the restaurants, which feel like time capsules.

“There’s a brick in the garden that says this couple proposed in the '70s back in this spot, so when we renovate, that brick can’t go anywhere,” said Geoff Peveto, who runs Austin’s Scholz Garten, which opened in 1866 and is the oldest continuously operating tavern in Texas. “There’s a ton of beer steins. One of the patrons donated his collection with the caveat that it had to be displayed.”

Some German restaurants would like to become more modern, but operators say they’re thwarted by regulations.

“It is difficult to make yourself commercially relevant to a new client base when you are a historic landmark and functionally can’t change anything,” said Kevin Fitzgerald, who is selling Boston’s Jacob Wirth, which opened in 1868. The restaurant’s age gives it charm, like the posters that date to the 1890s, but that atmosphere comes with a tiny, narrow kitchen from the same era.

“There’s a value in allowing the restaurant to adapt and be modern, as long as you keep one foot firmly in its history and legacy,” he said. Restaurants that can’t change will “end up closed like many others.”

As German restaurants struggle, biergartens are thriving. You might not think there’s much of a difference, but the distinction lies in the business model: Biergartens have high-volume beer sales and a limited menu; German restaurants have more table seating, a wider variety of traditional dishes, and an atmosphere closer to fine dining. Plenty of places started out as the latter, and ended up as the former.

When Andy Chun bought San Francisco’s Schroeder’s, founded in 1893, he and his partners spent a million dollars on the renovation.

“The original concept was to do a beer hall in the front and almost an elevated fine-dining German restaurant in the back,” he said. He hired a German chef, Manfred Wrembel, to design a menu with dishes such as beef tongue with asparagus and capers, and pfannkuchen, or German crepes, for dessert. “We were too ambitious,” Chun said. “What it became was a big beer hall. You have to listen to your customers.”

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In many cases, that means making your biergarten less German. Schroeder’s serves kale-quinoa salad and tahini-avocado toast to attract the lunch crowds in San Francisco’s financial district. And at Scholz Garten, the menu is half Tex-Mex, which Peveto says is a vestige of World War II, when the area’s sizable German-descended population was trying to integrate more with Americans — as well as a nod to the restaurant’s role as a pregame spot for University of Texas football.

But as restaurants trim their menus, culturally significant dishes are being left behind.

“I will get a phone call at least once a year from someone asking if we have pig’s knuckles,” Fitzgerald at Jacob Wirth said. “We haven’t had them on the menu since the mid-'80s. . . . On the other hand, buffalo cauliflower, sauteed Brussels sprouts in bacon — those are big.” He knows they’re not authentic, but “if you have a menu that is old, you will be closed.”

The future of German restaurants in the United States might be a tiny restaurant in Richmond’s Union Hill neighborhood, called Metzger Bar and Butchery. Instead of a massive beer hall, it’s a petite corner spot that seats about 30 people. It’s bright and airy, decorated with subway tile and nose-to-tail butchery posters. The servers do not dress in lederhosen. It’s pretty much the opposite of Karl Ratzsch.

The restaurant was founded by Brittanny Anderson, who claims no German heritage whatsoever. Because one of her partners in the restaurant owns a sausage company, her original plan was a casual wurst joint — but that evolved after she got interested in traditional German cooking.

“German food is so much more related to French food than people give it credit for,” Anderson said. “A coq au vin on a menu, you will know what that is. But if you put Hasenpfeffer on the menu, people are like, ‘What the hell?’ ”

Instead of reproducing the dishes faithfully, Anderson puts more modern versions on her menu, often inspired by her dog-eared copy of Mimi Sheraton's “The German Cookbook.” Instead of gravy on her schnitzel, “We make a big salad with fennel and fennel fronds and fried capers, because we want to lighten it up,” she said. “We cook with things that anybody would taste and recognize that vibe of being those German or Eastern European flavors, but we will use seasonal ingredients and modern American technique.”

That means serving some things that aren’t German at all. At Metzger you can get a riff on a Negroni, a sunchoke salad, even scallops. “If you’re a chef like me and you want to create things and grow, you kind of have to take those ideas and move them forward,” she said.

If enough other chefs do that, perhaps German food could become trendy again. Certainly elements of it are having a moment: Sauerkraut and spaetzle are showing up on more non-German menus. It would help if the cuisine had a star chef, said Chun — a David Chang or a Roy Choi. And if that chef were to create a popular fusion dish — the German equivalent of Choi's Korean tacos — it might bring younger people back to the cuisine. (He’s trying: At one point, Schroeder’s served a schnitzel banh mi.)

Until then, the German restaurants of America will continue to turn out plates of sauerbraten, and struggle.

“You take certain restaurants for granted that have been around for forever, because they’ll be around forever,” Hauck said. “That’s just not the case, it turns out.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Scholz Garten is the oldest continually operating business in Texas. It is the oldest continuously operating tavern in Texas. The also misspelled the tavern’s name as Scholz Garden.

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