By the early 20th century, German immigrants were concentrated in Yorkville on the Upper East Side — where German restaurants and butcher shops still exist — and in Williamsburg, Bushwick, and adjacent neighborhoods in Queens that included Ridgewood, Glendale, and Middle Village. Until Prohibition shut many of them down, dozens of micro-breweries were to be found in Bushwick and Williamsburg, where Peter Luger Steakhouse (established 1887) is the oldest German institution. Stroll in the front door today and find its plain dining rooms lined with beer steins.
Even more than the beer culture, we have German and German-Jewish immigrants to thank for a large share of the cuisine we regard as New York fare. It’s largely a meat-and-potatoes affair, featuring pounded pork and veal cutlets known as schnitzels, so many sausages it’s hard to identify them all, innumerable forms of pickled cucumbers and cabbage, herring and oxtail salads, lots of meatloaf-type recipes, and the novel use of sour flavors in such dishes as sauerbraten. Let’s also note that many of the dishes we regard as German came from the southern part of the country, specifically Bavaria.
A century ago many of the city’s most famous restaurants were German. Besides Luger, there was Lüchow’s, which existed from 1882 to 1986. It occupied a pink three-story structure near 14th Street and Irving Place, a few doors from the Academy of Music, the city’s most respected opera house (which subsequently became The Palladium and then an N.Y.U. dorm). Oompah bands played in Lüchow’s rambling interior, which seated 1500. The menu was insanely long. Of it, Seymour Britchky scolded in 1974, "It has been said that all the food at Lüchow’s is terrible. Of course, nobody knows. There are close to 200 items on the menu, and many of them engender so little curiosity that only some kind of crazy obsessive investigator/cataloguer would look into them all."
Luckily, we have nearly two dozen old-fashioned German restaurants remaining, and about the same number of newer spots, including branches of two transplanted Bavarian beer halls. Here are the 10 best old-fashioned German restaurants, all to be recommended for the solid quality of their food and their dedication to German beers.
The Five Best
Though it seems far older, Zum Stammtisch was founded in 1972 in Glendale, Queens, which at the time was home to a large German immigrant population. It boasts twin Tyrolean-style dining rooms decorated with beer steins, stuffed animal heads, wooden beer casks, and cozy lampshade sconces, and a waitstaff of nimble women adorned in dirndls. Expect a fine selection of imported draft beers heavy on the pilsners and lagers. You may also choose to dine in the clubby barroom, where German is still frequently spoken, or more commonly a mish-mash of languages we might call Germglish.
Chunky with beef, the goulash soup is fabled, and herring or oxtail cold salads are also good choices for appetizing. You don’t really need them, though, since main courses are massive, including an excellent jägerschnitzel (a pounded pork cutlet shaped like Austria smothered in mushroom gravy), sauerbraten (beefsteak prepared in a tart marinade), and multiple wursts served on a bed of homemade sauerkraut with a pickle. The name Zum Stammtisch means something like "to the communal table," a reference to the pleasure of dining with friends. 69-46 Myrtle Ave, Queens, 718-386-3014
Located in the remote wilds of Staten Island on the Arthur Kill, far closer to New Jersey than Manhattan, Killmeyer’s Old Bavaria Inn was founded in 1859 — though the lovely, intricately carved mahogany bar made by local German craftsmen with wood shipped from Bavaria was not installed until 1890. The restaurant occupies a rambling house made of Kreischer bricks, manufactured by prominent German industrialist Balthasar Kreischer at a brickworks that is now Clay Pit Ponds State Park. When I first stumbled into Killmeyer’s a couple of decades ago, it had mainly degenerated into a biker bar, but it now hosts beer aficionados and foodie pilgrims from all over the city, and its outdoor beer garden really comes alive during Oktoberfest.
The beer list is expansive, and the food is (as the name of the place suggests) very Bavarian. Puffy potato pancakes served with applesauce and sour cream can’t be beat as a bar snack, nor can the bacon-and-caramelized-onion pizza known as pflammküchen. For entrees, you’ll find all the usual offerings, including a wienerschnitzel of veal or chicken, sauerbraten, a strip steak Heidelberg-style smothered in onions, kassler ripchen (a smoked and then grilled pork chop), and beef goulash served with spätzle or mashed potatoes. A geriatric ensemble called the Happy Tone Band plays beer hall standards mixed with American pop from the 40s and 50s. 4254 Arthur Kill Rd, Staten Island, 718-984-1202.
Named after a university town in Germany’s southwest, Heidelberg is sadly the last German restaurant still standing in Yorkville, a neighborhood that once housed dozens. Done in stucco accented with rustic stained timbers, the exterior is purely Teutonic and features a sidewalk seating area. The labyrinthine dining rooms extend to the basement, which is a de facto beer hall in which the frothy beverage is often enjoyed in two-liter glass boots. Just don’t kick yourself in the face!
The restaurant was founded in 1936, and the Matischak family has owned it since 1964. It boasts a menu far more extensive than most German restaurants. Start your meal with a sour-cream-topped cucumber salad and maybe an oxtail salad of shaved pink meat. Though styled as an appetizer, the baked noodle dish called kase-spätzle is the German answer to mac and cheese. It’s rich enough to be an entrée (especially with the optional bacon). Six sausages are available, which may be ganged up on platters that feed four. Schweinhaxe — an oven-roasted pork shank — is a favorite here, as is the sliced sauerbraten. Perhaps the oddest entrée is the veal schnitzel, Holstein style, which tops the crisp cutlet with anchovies, canned peas, and a poached egg. 1648 2nd Ave, 212-628-2332.
Germans continue to emigrate to the U.S., and one of their current hangs is relative newcomer Schnitzel Haus (2007) in Bay Ridge. It possesses a handsome, wood-clad dining room that might have been built in the 1960s, with the usual Bavarian and Austrian decorations. At the long bar, eight taps are reserved for German beers, which include the top-fermented Reissdorf Kolsch from Cologne, and dark, double-bock Weihenstephan Korbinian, brewed just north of Munich. The bottled beer list is perhaps more interesting, featuring Kostritzer black lager, which surprises you with the lightness and subtlety of its flavor. Starters include smoked trout, mushrooms sautéed with bacon, and a potato-leek soup that’s one of the kitchen’s signatures. For main courses, there’s a novel three-schnitzel combination (pork, veal, and chicken), each smothered with a different sauce, and leberkas, a pork-and-veal meat loaf topped with a fried egg. A pleasant garden lurks out back. 7319 5th Ave, Brooklyn, 718-836-5600.
Zum Schneider opened in 2000, leading a wave of new German restaurants downtown that also included Lederhosen and Lorelei (see below). While partaking of the beer garden spirit, these places also featured a downtown quirkiness and provided an ironic commentary on the city’s historic German places. The menu at Zum Schneider skews toward the unusual, including schupfnudeln (spliff-shaped noodles pan-fried and then tossed with sauerkraut) and schweinswürst’l, skinny pork sausages that originated in Nuremberg. Sidewalk seating reminds you of the days when this was a German neighborhood. For Oktoberfest this year there’ll be a house polka band, and the cave-like interior will be appropriately decorated. 107 Avenue C, 212-598-1098.
Here are Five More:
Hallo Berlin (626 10th Ave, 212-977-1944) — Hallo Berlin began life as a Midtown sausage cart in 1990, way before such mobile food operations were considered stylish. It morphed into a Hell’s Kitchen bar and restaurant with a Berlin perspective, with outdoor seating on 10th Avenue.
Lederhosen (39 Grove St, 212-206-7691) — This unusual spot on a Greenwich Village side street constitutes a sort of indoor and semi-subterranean beer garden, with a fine selection of taps and plethora of supporting snacks and full meals served at picnic tables under brightly painted mountain and forest murals.
Loreley (7 Rivington St, 212-253-7077) — Open 12 years, Loreley is named after a Heinrich Heine poem about a siren who sits upon a rock on the Rhine and lures sailors to their death. The premises was inspired by a beer garden in Cologne, and 12 German beers are on tap, with a menu of comfort food, including wonderful homemade pretzels. Outdoor seating in a back garden.
Rolf’s (281 3rd Ave, 212-477-4750) — Though there’s no outdoor seating at this Gramercy Park old-timer (founded 1968), the kitsch-clad interior is made up to look like the Black Forest and the menu reaches a little further afield than similar institutions. The rahm schnitzel with its cream gravy, for example, might be mistaken for Texas chicken fried steak, and the menu also extends to Alsace, France, which has historically been part of Germany from time to time.
Hofbräu Bierhaus (712 3rd Ave, 212-867-2337) — Occupying the expansive second floor of a building just east of Grand Central, this is a franchised branch of the famed Hofbräuhaus in Munich, a key institution in the Bavarian celebration of Oktoberfest. Company beer is vended by the meter, tables are communal, and the noise level is deafening, but depending on your mood, it may be the best place in town to celebrate.
Check out the other posts in the 10 Old-Fashioned series:
- 10 Old-Fashioned Italian-American Restaurants to Try in Brooklyn
- 10 Old-Fashioned French Bistros to Try in New York City
- 10 Old-Fashioned Spanish Restaurants to Try in New York and New Jersey
- 10 Great Old-Fashioned Brooklyn Neighborhood Pizzerias
- 10 Old-Fashioned New York Neighborhood Pizzerias
- 10 Old-Fashioned Chinese-American Restaurants