German and Austrian Restaurants

Fenster writes:

America’s love for things ethnic does not typically extend to the Germans. And Germans don’t typically revel in their heritage.  Germans are the largest self-reported ancestry group in the United States, with 17% of Americans reporting German ancestry.  But you don’t see us running off to German restaurants, now, do you?  No, we wait in line with the rest of you for the opening of the latest Vietnamese place.

German restaurants were not uncommon when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s.  As late as the 70s and 80s, you could still identify the Yorkville section of Manhattan as having German roots from the restaurants, delis and meat markets there.  All that has faded, a function of several waves of de-Germanification as well as the simple function of the melting pot.  My first generation father was hardly ashamed of his German heritage and liked his sauerbraten as much as the next guy with German roots.  But he was American head-to-toe.

Another reason German restaurants faded was because the cuisine had gotten untrendy.  In an era of crazed innovation, it had gotten boiled down to four or five stand-bys: sauerbraten, wiener schnitzel, sausage plates, maybe a pork hock here or there, all accompanied by sauerkraut and red cabbage.  As Eric Asimov wrote in the Times in 2011:

I am not one to sneer at the manifest pleasures of a Wiener schnitzel. I have friends, however, who are not nearly so accepting of these simple joys. They regard the Wiener schnitzel as too ordinary, the mundane low-risk equivalent of boneless chicken breasts.

. . .  which is a kind of damning with faint praise, isn’t it?

Unlike the Chinese, who could continually revitalize their restaurant offerings as more Chinese came to America, the demographic tie to the old country was severed where Germany was concerned, and the restaurant scene was left to atrophy.

How to bring back German food?  Well, you’d need to put some zing and creativity and newness back into the offerings.  But you still have that “German restaurant” moniker to worry about, summoning up a tired eatery on its last legs.

rolfs

One answer, in New York at any rate, is a rebranding as Austrian.  No implied oom-pah-pah.  Austrian is sophisticated, summoning up as it can the lovely lost world of fin de siècle Vienna (forget for the moment that much of the allure of that world vanished when the the Jews vanished from it).

"At Seäsonal, a small Austrian restaurant near Carnegie Hall with ambitions reaching beyond faithful reproductions of the classics, you will still find Wiener schnitzel. But you might not recognize it."--Asimov

“At Seäsonal, a small Austrian restaurant near Carnegie Hall with ambitions reaching beyond faithful reproductions of the classics, you will still find Wiener schnitzel. But you might not recognize it.”–Asimov

So:

The past two years have seen the opening of no less than four new Austrian restaurants: Edi and the Wolf; Der Kommissar in Park Slope; Gutenbrunner’s latest, Cafe Kristall, in SoHo; and Schnitzel & Things in Midtown East — plus the just-completed expansion of Cafe Katja on the Lower East Side. There are currently at least a dozen Austrian eateries in the city, up from five a decade ago — and there are more on the way.

It would be nice if German cuisine could be revitalized in a rebranding like this.  Provided it retains the kind of Gemütlich without which why bother.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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16 Responses to German and Austrian Restaurants

  1. epiminondas says:

    There’s a nice looking Austrian restaurant on the upper east side, but I can’t remember its name. We almost ate there but ran out of time.

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  2. g2-337af867fe9cd20258bdbc586fbefd0d says:

    Yes, but Italian restaurants are prospering.

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  3. ironrailsironweights says:

    Unlike the Chinese, who could continually revitalize their restaurant offerings as more Chinese came to America, the demographic tie to the old country was severed where Germany was concerned, and the restaurant scene was left to atrophy.

    Whatever links exist between immigration levels and the popularity of particular cuisines are somewhat questionable. Italian restaurants are thriving even though there’s been very little immigration from Italy in generations. The same applies with respect to sushi bars and other Japanese restaurants, though in most cases the owners and employees are Chinese.

    On the other hand, immigration from Mexico is high (you can hear blogospherians shriek in anguish) and Mexican restaurants are extremely popular. On a negative note, the recent decline in the numbers of Greek diners may be due at least in part to the deaths and retirements of the immigrants who founded them.

    Peter

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    • Fenster says:

      I see your point. But as to Italian places thriving, my sense has always been that they did just the kind or rebranding that may be in store for Middle Europe.

      Growing up meant one thing where Italian was concerned: red sauce, as befitting the lower-end, Southern Italians who comprised most of the immigration. I know we didn’t have a subsequent wave of Milanese and Genoans–but some enterprising folks figured they could upscale the whole enterprise. Hard to find plain old red sauce Italian now where I grew up, which was a bastion of Italian immigration.

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  4. electricangel says:

    Hasn’t been the same since Niederstein’s closed. And the Silver Swan.

    BTW, Rolf’s was featured in a WSJ article about an immigration loophole whereby they were allowed to import German cooks b/c they couldn’t find any in the USA. Their food isn’t very good.

    Cafe D’Alsace at 2nd and 88th is another end-around on “German” food. Their baekoffe and Choucroute Garnie would make any proper kraut happy.

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  5. electricangel says:

    Oh, and there is one Italian restaurant that’s dedicated to the cuisine of Sudtirol, covering two themes in this post and comments.

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    • electricangel says:

      Buschenschank is the place. brooklynbuschenschank.com

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    • Will S. says:

      Now that I’d like to try! I’ve been curious about the interplay between German and Italian in Sudtirol, and I have wondered if their cuisine, while being very German, nevertheless contains an Italian component, either in herbs and seasonings, or perhaps in something else.

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      • electricangel says:

        Will,

        Check out the dinner menu. They have quite a few alpine dishes. Yum. Actually, the Kale with belly speck is delicious and a great way to get your veggies, always hard to do in a German-style restaurant.

        They do, as you can see here, have a number of pizzas and wines from Sudtirol Lagrein is a good red from there.

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      • Will S. says:

        And their pizzas contain schinkenspeck – awesome!

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  6. agnostic says:

    Their decline probably has more to do with the carboholic and fat-phobic trends of the past 20-30 years. Italian is flexible enough to cater to meat-eaters and pastafarians alike. And just look at the rise of Mexican food — despite it being a bucket full of slop. Chinese is basically syrupy rice or syrupy noodles with an afterthought of meat and vegetables.

    I don’t think Germans hit on just the right addictive mix of carbohydrates in the way that Italian, Mexican, and East Asian restaurants did. Cream puffs and beer, I guess, but that’s not a meal.

    In the early ’80s teen comedy classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, two of the main characters go on a very long date at the German restaurant in the mega-mall. They offered everything back then.

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  7. >>And just look at the rise of Mexican food — despite it being a bucket full of slop. Chinese is basically syrupy rice or syrupy noodles with an afterthought of meat and vegetables.

    Sure, there’s some average, mediocre stuff where I live, but neither of those things is true in my experience. There are excellent taco stands all over the place. I know of one in a crappy strip mall that serves great tacos for $1 each — your choice of carne asada, chicken, carnitas, lengua, chorizo, or cabeza, garnished with a grilled jalapeño and onions. Panda Express may serve their meat in neon-syrup, but good to great Chinese places abound, too.

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  8. Fenster says:

    Funny about fat. When my born in Germany grandmother did the cooking growing up she would routinely demand that we eat every speck (so to speak) of fat on the pork chop, or whatever. Some of that was Depression era influenced but some of that was just the German style.

    My father, thoroughly American, would nonetheless drag out his German language skills for one thing and one thing only: talking about food. And where that was concerned, “schmack gut” (tastes good) was always employed with reference to boiled pigs feet or pork hocks, the fat and skin of which was deemed the best part, and all of which was happily eaten.

    That survives in me today in an affection for things like pork belly and slow roasted shoulder or Boston butt, and they can be done in the German style, or Chinese, or Spanish. The speck’s the thing. All that stuff is on my short list of Desert Island Delicacies.

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  9. Pingback: Carnevino at the Palazzo | Uncouth Reflections

  10. Sasha says:

    That Café Kristall is in the lower level of a Swarovski boutique. Shiny stuff and Austrian food: nothing I don’t like!

    I’m a big fan of the Löwenbraukeller and Essen in Sydney.

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