It’s more than beer and brats, but it could just be about those two. Would that be so bad? Our food culture has certainly embraced craft beers and gourmet sausages over the last few years—and no one culture does those two things better than Germany. A platter of blistered brats with a mug of crisp beer is perfection, no? But the trend of modern German cuisine encompasses much more than that. It’s a chicken schnitzel sandwich with horseradish mayonnaise on a brioche bun at Brauhaus Schmitz in Philadelphia. It’s frikadellen mit pommes frites, a basket of delicious pork meatballs served with french fries and mayonnaise at New York’s Loreley Restaurant & Biergarten. It’s even Bavarian Nachos, skin-on potato slices topped with Jack-cheddar cheese, wurst and tomato at Glass Boot Biergarten in Dallas. It’s German street food gone upscale with dishes like the one found at Radegast Hall & Biergarten in Brooklyn, N.Y.: spring vegetable buckwheat spaetzle with sweet corn, fava beans, mint and manchego. It’s traditional German food turned into bar specials like at CBD Provisions in Dallas: housemade Bavarian sausage, lye pretzels and farmhouse ale for $12. It’s endlessly social, embracing the best of communal dining with family-style sausage dinners, like the one at The Radler in Chicago, where the table is served haus pretzels with barley malt butter and a trio of housemade mustards, two appetizers, housemade sauerkraut and four types of housemade wursts.
And it’s all about the beer. “It’s that combination of rustic and modern that makes the new German so appealing,” says Sharon Olson, executive director of Culinary Visions. “The Radler is a great example with all of the welcoming charm of warm wood and communal dining, and with a menu featuring plenty of shared plates, local and sustainably sourced ingredients and an exceptional beer selection.”
So, no lederhosen and loud accordion music? “We’ve had to fight a lot for what we see as modern German food,” says Nathan Sears, chef and co-owner of The Radler, which opened in late 2013. “Yes, you have to give people what they’re familiar with—the go-aheads, the schnitzels. But what I wasn’t interested in was serving it with boiled potatoes and jarred sauerkraut. We have sauerkraut as a side, but it’s made in house. How alarming is schnitzel? Not at all, but then we put our influences on the sides.” His side of pretzel hash, for instance, is made with day-old housemade pretzels and mirepoix, where the pretzel bits are toasted like croutons then soaked in water to absorb some of the liquid for both a crispy and chewy result.
“Modern German restaurants are perfect examples of a winning formula that is common among today’s fast-casual and casual-dining segments,” says Rocky Merron, senior business development manager with The Culinary Edge. “They strike a delicate balance between familiarity and innovation, inviting guests to approach new menu items and ultimately to engage with adventurous flavors.”
Although new Nordic cuisine might charm some, its potential for wide menu adoption is currently limited to smørrebrød and pickled vegetables. Modern German, then, is new Nordic for the rest of us—even though geographically it’s not Nordic at all. Indeed, it’s more of an expansion of casual food that pairs well with beer. We’ve explored France’s brasseries, Britain’s gastropubs. We’ve elevated the American tavern with local brews and tempting bar bites. Now, it’s time to discover the potential of modern German.
Whether the fare is über casual or somewhat refined, authenticity and a new appreciation of discovery propels the trend. “This is a continuation of the maturation of the American palate and a thirst for all things authentic,” says consulting chef Rick Perez. That authenticity embraces German ingredients and traditions, but also focuses on craftsmanship.
Roofers Union in Washington, D.C., which opened in February 2014, is positioned as an American tavern, but housemade sausages are a staple on the menu. “The space has a German beer garden feel to it,” says Executive Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley. “I wanted to take that German feel and combine it with an American pub feel, so my menu is American bar food meets German bar food.” One of her stuffed sausage sandwiches features Hunter Sausage, a housemade blend of beef and pork on a pretzel roll served with Dijon mustard and sauerkraut infused with beer, bacon and caraway. “Modern German fare is such a natural fit for diners today—it’s social, friendly and casual,” she says.
Roofers Union illustrates German food’s potential outside of a themed restaurant. “Many of the ingredients lend themselves to other trends impacting foodservice beyond the modern German movement,” says Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential. “That includes pickling, using local ingredients to create items, and mustards and charcuterie. Many of these have moved beyond German cuisine and have become almost non-origin in nature. So a restaurant that’s not focusing on German cuisine can leverage the renewed interest in German food by offering mustards, sauerkraut, pretzel-based options and bratwurst without suddenly seeming to change culinary direction.”
Certainly, the fascination with fermented and pickled condiments is right at home here. Sauerkrauts can express craftsmanship and/or creativity. At Dai Due Butcher Shop & Supper Club in Austin, Texas, chef Jesse Griffiths changes out the kraut with the season. In the summer, he switches the cabbage with fermented apple and zucchini, for instance. “There’s a preconceived notion of what German is, but there’s so much nuance. It gives you a lot of room for your own interpretation,” he says.
He also points out the large number of German settlers in central Texas. “I can give them dishes they’re familiar with, but still focus on local and regional ingredients,” says Griffiths. One example is his sauerbraten with sweet potato dumplings made with local produce.
That immigrant connection to Germany helps the trend gain momentum. “There’s a large immigrant population on the East Coast, in the Midwest and scattered throughout the country,” says Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides. “German fare is familiar to Americans, it’s tied to family and friends, and it’s non-threatening, but complex enough to be attractive right now.”
Not only is the culture of modern German food amiably linked with beer, but the flavors inherent in its food make beer a worthy pairing. Sour elements in mustards and krauts and delicious richness in sausages and other pork dishes get a clean, crisp counterweight with beer. “The craft beer movement has really brought the complexity and potential for beer into the spotlight,” says Datassential’s Webster. “And many of these beers are based on traditional German beer practices and varieties. German food, of course, works perfectly with beer—but as with craft beer raising expectations for beer, the modern German movement is upscaling German food overall.” Just as craft beer has found an equal in its better burger alliance, so too does it demand a well-executed German food partner.
And although each demographic can lay claim to loving craft beers, Millennials in particular are a coveted group. Sears carefully chose The Radler’s location, picking the trendy Logan Square neighborhood with the thought that young urban professionals would gravitate toward a place that offered a plate of good sausages and a tap filled with good beers—without oversimplifying the drivers too much.
“Beers are a big concern for a place like us,” he says. “Our draft focuses on local because it’s the best way to keep it fresh, but we have a lot of German beer, of course.” The Radler also serves a decent list of Radlers, German-style shandies that offer a refreshing and lower-proof way of enjoying beer.
“When a cuisine is inherently associated with beer, it also lends itself to be an experience shared with friends,” says Perez. “German cuisine brings with it a homestyle feel of community and camaraderie, breaking bread with family and friends.”