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The sign was troubling. About six weeks ago, a new marquee appeared above Glover Park’s Old Europe, replacing the simple backlit one that had hung for more than 55 years. That followed a refurbishment of the brick façade a few months prior. Pretty soon, a spiffy new awning will adorn the Wisconsin Avenue storefront.
It makes sense: Luxury condos are going up a block away. Where Good Guys and the Grog and Tankard once represented the pinnacle of neighborhood nightlife, chic bars have moved in. Farther down Wisconsin, Leopold’s Kafe + Konditorei slings hearty continental fare—Old Europe’s forte—to young, stylish crowds in a slick, Euro-moderne setting. Is this Washington classic—could it be?—getting an overhaul?
Never fear: “We’re just doing the exterior,” says Alex Herold, the restaurant’s proprietor. “Pep it up a bit.”
Pep, of course, is not why patrons flock to Old Europe, which has sat in its half-timbered, stained-glass storefront since 1948. They come to get served by no-nonsense ladies wearing dirndls. To sit among the cuckoo clock and crests on the dark-wood-appointed walls. To hear the pianist play “Edelweiss” one more time. To eat asparagus in the spring and sausages in the fall. The formula hasn’t changed much, certainly not since Alex’s father, Karl Herold—who still spends half-days running the restaurant—bought the place in the early ’70s.
But for all the theme-park trappings, Old Europe manages a seriousness about its cuisine. The dining room, “Edelweiss” aside, is usually serene. There are tablecloths. The prices are a tad higher than you might expect in your typical Wursthaus, the portions a tad daintier. When I was in college and living a few blocks away, I popped in for the first time with my roommates, ordered up a half-liter of Bitburger and a Wiener schnitzel—which, I requested of our server when it came, I wanted to enjoy with mustard. Now, you can get away with mustard on fried veal in any of America’s classic schnitzel factories—Chicago’s Berghoff, the one I grew up visiting, for example. But not at Old Europe. This is a schnitzel factory with class.
“You want mustard for your Wiener schnitzel?” she asked, frowning. That, I was quickly informed, was for sausages.
I was embarrassed, exposed as a Midwestern philistine, but she was right. Mustard would have been a travesty: The cutlet, coated in a thin layer of delicate bread crumbs, was—then as now—expertly pan-fried in clarified butter. It’s even better if you forgo the traditional fried sliced potatoes, which tend to leave the kitchen more chewy than crispy, and match it with a pair of creamy potato dumplings and a rich stew of red cabbage flavored with apples.
For a restaurant like Old Europe, “Stick to the classics” is a typical critical suggestion. But here, the menu is all classics, top to bottom. The kitchen, under the direction of Cindy Herold, Alex’s German-born wife, works its way through the canon with considerable delicacy and attention: a velvety and, yes, nicely tangy sauerbraten; an enormous, glistening roasted pork hock, Bavarian-style; a beefy goulash, nearly upstaged by profoundly buttery spaetzle; an only lightly smoky Kasseler Rippenspeer, surprisingly juicy even though cut from pork loin instead of the usual rib meat; a poached salmon fillet and a grouping of parsleyed potatoes nestled up to a pool of dill cream; the beautiful sausages—always bratwurst; usually several other varieties, too; ask for ’em lightly grilled—from Egon Binkert’s in Baltimore, another longtime-family-owned business.
The restaurant, when it falters, does so from lack of restraint. Take the house schnitzel, a dish heavy enough to play seesaw with Helmut Kohl: It layers a cut of butter-sauteed veal with thin slices of raw tomato, a liberal dousing of a cream-laden chicken-and-mushroom ragout fin, and a hefty dollop of—wait for it—hollandaise sauce. Another casualty lies on the dessert menu: the classic Viennese Sacher torte, whose interior is overstuffed with tooth-shatteringly-sweet apricot glaze, rotting away the delicate cake and ganache. Better to stick with an almost too-light Black Forest cake or the sublime hazelnut torte.
The appetizers, which include several excellent cured- and smoked-fish options, tend to be lighter. But Old Europe may shine brightest in its libations, expertly compiled by Alex Herold. The draft beers—four to five on tap at a time—tackle a range of styles: the pale Bitburger, a syrupy maibock, the crisp and fruity Reissdorf Kölsch. A number of outstanding weizens are available by the bottle. A classic Schneider Weisse comes in its proper glass chilled to a not-so-proper ice-cold temperature. (Not that I’m complaining—a well-chilled hefeweizen on a summer evening is one delightful heresy.)
And the wine list goes well beyond the rotgut Rotwein and cloying Halbtrocken that could easily be the extent of the selection. Rather, the offerings tilt toward drier whites; there are Rieslings galore, to be sure, but also less-well-known varietals—Silvaner, Weissburgunder. And, though they may not be in the right language to pull in the trendsters, several wonderful bottles of Spätburgunder (German for pinot noir) also grace the list—like the rest, at eminently fair prices.
For now, though, that crowd is plenty occupied with Leopold’s and the other foodie infatuations of the hour. Meanwhile, Old Europe remains steadfast, serving the same classic grub in the same classic room. A sign, sometimes, isn’t a sign at all.—Mike DeBonis
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.