When you think of the quintessential German restaurant in the United States, you’re thinking of a place like Karl Ratzsch. Ever since it was founded by German immigrants in 1904, it had a menu full of schnitzel, spaetzle and hearty Bavarian staples. The interior was dark wood, with German coats of arms, hand-painted beer steins, a beautiful Bavarian cuckoo clock and servers in dirndls. The place was a Milwaukee institution: Frank Lloyd Wright, Liberace and President Nixon dined there. Karl Ratzsch’s was handed down through generations, and reached such acclaim that in 1980, members of the Ratzsch family were invited to a state dinner with President Jimmy Carter and the chancellor of West Germany, Helmut Schmidt.As everyone in Washington now understands that the elective road to National Office leads through Wisconsin, let us note that Gus Mader is still serving, that Fred Usinger still sell sausages, and that Spanferkl and large mugs of beer are on offer at numerous places in and around Milwaukee.
Along the route of the new streetcar, the building that once housed John Ernst's cafe is now divided between a Chipotle and a Panera: that's a step up from ramen, and yet ... "Young people checked [a spruced up Ratzsch's] out but didn’t come back, opting instead for ramen and Korean tacos and the kind of bright, casual spots where all of the servers look like models and avocado toast is on the menu." Emergence is at work, and there are new selections out there.
German food’s decline “reflects the cultural mix of this country toward more Latin American, Asian and African American culture, and less of the mainstay Germanic culture that influenced this country for many decades,” said Arnim von Friedeburg, an importer of German foods and the founder of Germanfoods.org. “The cultural shift is going on, and German culture has to fight or compete to keep its relevance.”That might be, and yet the article notes Gemütlichkeit lives on, as proper German-style beer gardens have also become a thing. "Biergartens have high-volume beer sales and a limited menu; German restaurants have more table seating, a wider variety of traditional dishes, and an atmosphere closer to fine dining. Plenty of places started out as the latter, and ended up as the former." (Note: at a proper Biergarten your choices are not going to be limited to colored water in a silver can, colored water in a blue can, or headache in a glass!) Prosit!
The cuisine’s long history here might be part of the reason, too. It’s “Grandma’s food,” Hauck said. At a time when American eaters seem interested in sampling new-to-them cuisines from around the globe — Native American food is the new poke is the new Uighur is the new Filipino— German food seems stodgy. Not to mention that in the age of Instagram, it suffers from an acute case of brown.
It’s also hearty, heavy and boasts enough starches to make ketogenic, gluten-free Whole 30 adherents lose their minds — which makes it seem out of place in our current food culture.
“In German, it’s called gut bürgerliche küche,” said Alex Herold, the owner of Old Europe, a German restaurant in Washington celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. “Translated, it’s country-style comfort food,” what most Americans think of when they think about German food. “It’s that meat and potatoes stigma,” Herold said, even though in northern Germany, dishes are lighter and have much in common with trendy Scandinavian food.