Oh, for the oompahs of yesteryear! Bustling, jolly German restaurants and their attendant bars, beer gardens, and wine cellars — usually with lively musical accompaniment-were once a main-stay of the American hospitality industry. Not anymore. What two world wars fought on the wrong side began, assimilation has nearly finished. Except for a handful of cities with strong surviving ethnic enclaves (Milwaukee and St. Louis come to mind), the generic German restaurant, including Austrian and Swiss offshoots, is now a rarity. Even in Manhattan’s famed Yorkville area, where dozens of German and related Mitteleuropa restaurants, cafes, Konditoreien (pastry shops), butchers, bakers, and grocers once flourished, only the venerable but far from creaky Heidelberg Restaurant (on Second Avenue between 85th and 86th) is still alive, kicking, and very much worth a visit. Although my own hometown, Washington, D.C., has become something of a restaurant mecca in recent years, the same downward trend applies: a city that boasted at least eight German, Austrian, or Swiss restaurants at the end of the 1970s is now down to three.
Why all the shrinkage? Quite aside from unfortunate associations with Evil Adolf and Wacky Wilhelm, German food and drink are distinctly out of sync with America’s increasingly dyspeptic, anorexic trendsetters and fashionistas. Beer, bratwurst, and sauerbraten, while delicious at their best, are not even remotely “in.” And then there’s the declining culinary gene pool. Because there has been negligible German immigration to the United States for more than 50 years, and as most existing Americans of German ancestry are the products of multiple generations of happy intermarrying and geographical dispersion, there is nothing like the ethnic-based core constituency that Latino, Asian, Greek, Italian, Irish, Jewish, or Middle Eastern restaurateurs can cater to.
All of which makes Washington’s Cafe Mozart, which has managed to thrive as well as survive, such a happy anomaly. Even the setting of this cozy little bar and restaurant at 1331 H Street is a throwback to bygone days. Like a clandestine speakeasy from the Prohibition era, the cafe’s bar and dining room can be entered only after walking through a fully stocked Konditorei and German delicatessen. The surrounding neighborhood is rich in historic associations as well. Just across the way is the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, and the hitching post where — at least according to local lore — Abraham Lincoln once tethered his horse to attend worship services. The church is still fully functioning, but the small park adjoining it has become an unofficial tribal reservation for local bums, winos, and desperately downmarket hookers (politically correct subscribers, please read “homeless persons”).
Entering Cafe Mozart after glimpsing this squalid scene is like flipping the page from Hogarth’s grim engraving of “Gin Alley” to his lusty, upbeat depiction of “Beer Lane.” Your thirst and appetite are pleasantly piqued as you pass by the shelves of exotic food imports and inhale the richly assorted aromas of the pastry and deli counters. Chances are, you’ll decide to snap up a few items here “to go” on your way out. On more than one occasion I certainly have, my purchases ranging from a modest quarter pound of Hungarian head cheese to an enormous baroque monstrosity of a pewter tankard, replete with heraldic lions, scrolls, and curlicues and capable of holding a full liter, preferably of Bitburger Schwarzbier.
Like my tankard, Cafe Mozart is itself a winsome exercise in high kitsch. The bar-lounge is often festooned with colorful (though slightly age-faded) streamers: blue and white for Oktoberfest, yellow and black for Halloween, heart-red for Valentine’s Day, etc. For years, the top of the bar was garlanded with clusters of dingy plastic, terminally shabby faux fruit. They’ve recently been discarded, presumably as part of some long-deferred spring cleaning. Prints and photos of Austrian and Bavarian landmarks cover the walls and, in the evening, one or more of an eclectic mix of musicians provides live entertainment for diners and drinkers alike.
Depending on day of week or time of month, you may be serenaded by a pleasant, vaguely oriental pianist known only as Ms. Shuree; a talented guitarist-vocalist named Temur (from an easterly section of the former USSR and with a suitably Russian/Georgian/Gypsy repertoire of folk melodies); strolling opera singers; a genteel lady zither player of uncertain years; or — my favorite — Sylvia, the elfin, irrepressible Austrian accordionist who always obliges me with a medley of waltzes and chansons by my dear old friend Robert Stolz, Vienna’s last Operetta King (1880-1975), whose memoirs I helped to write, and whose daughter and nephew kindly provided Sylvia with a selection of Stolz melodies arranged for accordion.
The service staff is as international as the musicians. Over the years since Cafe Mozart opened its doors in 1981 (the German Delicatessen, originally housed further downtown, had already been around since 1932), kitchen, bar, and dining room help have included Moroccans, Mongolians, Turks, Ethiopians, Bangladeshis — and even a few Austrians and Germans. While the venerable proprietress is certifiably Teutonic, most of the management these days hails from Karachi and the Punjab; unlike its namesake cafes in Vienna and Salzburg, this one is more Austro-Pakistani than Austro-Hungarian.
But the wine cellar is genuinely German and at least three top-quality German or Central European pilsner, dark, and amber beers are always on tap. The kitchen, too, remains true to its roots with nine varieties of Wurst (I particularly recommend the Debreziner, a spicy Magyar sausage named after the city of its origin), Kassler Rippchen (smoked pork), Rahm Schnitzel (pork cutlet in creamy mushroom sauce), Hasenpfeffer (jugged hare), Sauerbraten (ginger-marinated pot roast), Wiener Schnitzel (delicately breaded and fried veal cutlet), and even occasional specialties like pig’s knuckles. The sauerkraut, red cabbage, potato pancake, and German or Austrian potato salad sides are all prepared to perfection.
Meanwhile, back at the bar, which is usually presided over by veteran dispenser Greg Brooks, one of the few American Americans on the premises, I usually settle for two or three liters of dark beer accompanied by a few light (by Teutonic standards) appetizers, usually pickled herring in wine or sour cream sauce or perhaps a sausage or two. Alas, there is no steak tartar on the menu. For that traditional raw beef delicacy, you’ll have to go across town to Old Europe on Wisconsin Avenue, another of Washington’s three surviving German restaurants, the third being the more recently opened Cafe Berlin near Capitol Hill.
But, even minus the yearned-for steak tartar, for a few pleasant hours of drinking, snacking, music, and conversation there’s no beating Cafe Mozart. The house provides the music, drinks, and snacks but, just to be on the safe side, you should bring along a few conversation partners of your own choosing. While random patrons include some interesting journalists, lobbyists, scholars, and eccentrics, on an ill-omened day you might find yourself surrounded by earnest but not-too-sharp tourists from nearby budget hotels or pasty-faced employees of neighboring “not-for-profit” organizations that meet their payroll services courtesy of federal subsidies, in return for which they pay no taxes.
So what? As they used to say in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire as they waltzed merrily into the abyss: “The situation is hopeless but not serious.” Which, at Cafe Mozart, only adds to the fun.