America has a German restaurant problem. As The Washington Post wrote last March, many historic German restaurants nationwide are serving their last schnitzels and shutting their doors, unable to keep up with millennial tastes for less heavy food and less fusty decor.
But a new German restaurant, the Berliner, appeals to that audience by being everything the old-guard German restaurants weren’t — bright and modern, with a menu that promises hearty sausages as well as lighter salads. It’s the replacement for Malmaison, the Georgetown French restaurant from the Popal Group, owners of Lapis and Cafe Bonaparte.
“It’s kind of like, what is Germany like now?” said Omar Popal, who owns the restaurant with his family. “We’re not trying to go back and [re]create these beer halls that have existed for hundreds of years.”
The Popals hired chef Mike O’Brien, a former butcher for Blue Duck Tavern, who developed a menu of six housemade sausages, from mettwurst to merguez. There’s even a classic frankfurter. A huge share plate featuring all the sausages with accoutrements — sauerkraut, caramelized onions, cheese sauce and more — will set you back $45.
The Popal family is from Afghanistan, but many of their family members emigrated to Germany. They’re a reflection of German culture, too: As the country has taken in more refugees from the Middle East, they have opened their own restaurants, and their food has become a part of the country’s culinary landscape.
“My 83-year-old grandmother lives in Germany,” said Popal, who spends his summers there. “Germany is like a second home.”
That’s why there’s falafel and kebab on the menu. Soy-marinated eggs — though ours were almost inedibly salty — add another cross-cultural touch. But we wished our currywurst hadn’t been so dry, as if it had been sitting under a heat lamp.
You’ll find hearty winter comforts such as a spaetzle gratin with celery root, and beer-adjacent snacks including an array of pickled vegetables and a pillowy soft pretzel that had us scraping every last morsel of cheese out of the cup. A grain salad with red quinoa, rye berries, delicata squash and spinach was a surprise hit. And there’s something magical in the fries, which always come out of the kitchen exactly the right ratio of crispy-to-squishy, and with a creamy, tangy sauce.
Most of the 24 taps feature local beers, and there’s something for everyone: You’ll find mainstays such as Right Proper and DC Brau, ciders from Anxo and a few choices from Baltimore’s Diamondback Brewing. Brews such as Kulmbacher Brauerei’s Schwarzbier and Freigeist’s Abraxxxas Apple were among the nine German beers on tap when I visited, and Popal says the selection will expand.
The Berliner is bright and white, with plenty of charm, long communal tables and minimal tchotchkes (some antlers, a trio of Black Forest clocks). Garage doors in the front will make it a nice spot for semi-al-fresco dining in the spring.
Orders are placed at the bar, and the self-service extends to cute floral napkins and cutlery, which you’re responsible for fetching from a metal armoire near the bar if you’re seated on the lower level. Need a fork? As you’re getting one, you might feel like you’re rummaging around in someone’s drawers.
The sausage menu will change regularly, and the restaurant will soon begin serving brunch. Popal will also be adding a dessert he cherishes every time he visits Germany: vanilla ice cream in the shape of noodles, with strawberry sauce on top. It’s called spaghettieis, and when it hits the menu, it’s going to be an instant hit on Instagram.
“It’s heaven on Earth,” Popal said.
3401 Water St. NW. 202-621-7000. www.theberlinerdc.com. Appetizers, $6 to $13; entrees, $7 to $16.