Like millions of other Americans over the holidays last year, our family sent away for one of those DNA analysis kits that purport to identify one’s ethnic heritage.
Since my maternal grandparents were born in Berlin in the 1880s and retained much of their German heritage after emigrating to the United States shortly before World War I, I was gratified to learn that nearly one-third of my heritage is German/Eastern European (which includes Austria, where my grandparents’ families had roots).
As a kid who spent many pleasant days during summer vacation with my siblings at my grandparent’s house, it was a tradition to sit in the dining room every hour waiting for the ornate Bavarian cuckoo clock to spring to life as the little wooden bird flew out of his “nest” to announce the time.
Naturally, family dinners included authentic treats such as kirschtorte, a chocolate cake layered with cherries and whipped cream, or apfelstrudel, a buttery pastry filled with cinnamon apples, raisins and breadcrumbs that is delicious to eat but apparently fairly tedious to make.
More pertinent to this discussion, mealtimes there always centered around a meat dish. I’m sure my grandmother would have uttered a few choice phrases in her native language if someone had suggested preparing a vegan entrée to serve to her family.
But that was decades ago, and times — and tastes — have changed, with the result that traditional German food may soon be on life support, especially in foodservice.
Gone for Good?
As Exhibit A, The Washington Post last week compiled a list of prominent German restaurants around the country that are now closed. It’s both a sobering confirmation of changing consumer preferences — thanks, Millennials — as well as an ongoing dirge for an era of menus replete with “hearty fare” based on red meat — and lots of it.
In just the last few years, according to The Post, these are some of the formerly bustling German-themed restaurants that have been recently shuttered:
Milwaukee: Karl Ratzsch’s, founded in 1904, closed in 2017.
Chicago: The Chicago Brauhaus closed in 2017, 52 years after its opening.
New York: Victor Koenig’s, which operated for 71 years on Long Island, is now closed.
Colorado: The Black Forest Restaurant in Boulder closed in 2017 after 59 years in business.
Connecticut: The Old Heidelberg Restaurant in Bethel is now closed.
North Carolina: The Olde German Schnitzel House in Hickory closed in 2014.
Oregon: Der Rheinlander in Portland closed in 2016 after 53 years in business, while another German restaurant in that city, the Berlin Inn, closed and then reopened as the Brooklyn House with a vegan and gluten-free menu of “Euro comfort food.” It shortly closed again, permanently.
Tennessee: Knoxville’s GruJo’s German Restaurant closed last year, and Nashville’s The Gerst Haus closed earlier this year after 62 years in business.
Virginia: Zum Rheingarten in Stafford closed in 2016.
Those closures make sense when analyzing modern culinary trends.
For example, a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association in 2015 found that just 7% of respondents said they ate German food at least once a month. That’s significantly less than other notable cuisines people chose monthly, such as Italian (61%), Mexican (50%) and Chinese (36%).
Even Southeast Asian cuisine and “Belgian food” — whatever the heck that is — were more popular than German food.
When Belgian anything is polling higher than your category, suffice to say that your brand’s in trouble.
Part of the problem is perception. Most people (correctly) equate German cuisine with hearty meals that can be considered comfort food — gut bürgerliche küche in German — but are also viewed as heavy, calorie-laden dishes out of step with modern, health-conscious palates.
In addition to such popular specialties as sauerkraut and bratwurst, German restaurants typically feature foods that would be familiar to my grandparents but hardly items that make it onto very many American dinner tables these days. When’s the last time you dined on any of these ethnic dishes?
Wienerschnitzel: A thin, breaded, pan-fried veal cutlet that is the national dish of Austria.
Sauerbraten: A pickled pot roast, usually pork, which is marinated for up to 10 days in wine, vinegar and spices.
Hasenpfeffer: A traditional stew made from marinated rabbit meat.
Rouladen: Thinly sliced beef, veal or pork wrapped around a filling of bacon, chopped onions, pickles and mustard, then braised in broth.
Spaetzli: A type of dumpling popular in southern Germany, especially as a fall season side dish with game meats or Rollschinkli (a prosciutto-type ham served hot) and red cabbage.
Pfannkuchen: A traditional German pastry, like a doughnut with no hole, and typically filled with chocolate or custard. (The “Berliner Pfannkuchen” was a source of mirth for people who mistakenly suggested that when President Kennedy uttered the famous phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” during a 1963 speech in West Berlin, he was calling himself a jelly donut).
The other problem with pretty much every German restaurant I’ve ever patronized is that the décor is typically as dark and “heavy” as whatever you order off the menu: lots of paneled wood, ornate artwork and dim lighting.
And a wait staff in lederhosen and dirndls? That comes with the meal.
So what’s the prognosis for the remaining German-themed restaurants? How do they adjust to changing times and lifestyles?
The Post suggested a one-word solution: Biergartens.
I’ll drink to that.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.