Long ago the East Village was known as Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany.” Peer at the terra-cotta lintel over the door of Second Avenue’s Ottendorfer library, for example, and you’ll make out the 1884 inscription “Freie Bibliothek u. Lesehalle” (“Free Library and Reading Room”). All that changed in 1904, when the General Slocum, a tour boat bound for a Sunday school picnic, caught fire in the East River’s Hell Gate, sending a thousand, mostly women and children, to their graves. Almost overnight, German families departed the neighborhood for the Upper East Side, Queens, and points beyond.
One hundred years later, the Germans are returning. Zum Schneider replicated a Bavarian biergarten on Avenue C in 2000. More recently, two other beer gardens have appeared south of 14th Street. Why the renewed popularity of German food, so long a subject of scorn among gourmands and the diet conscious? Does the current admiration for good beer figure in, or is it mainly a retrograde craving for the kind of uncomplicated food that dominated the 20th-century American diet? Certainly the menu at Loreley is painfully plain. The breaded veal cutlet known as Wiener schnitzel ($16) presents itself undressed—with no gravy, dip, or condiment of any sort. Other entrées are equally spare, including a “Rhineland-style” gulasch ($15), the vinegary beef pot roast called sauerbraten, and various platters of meats and cheeses sided with mashed potatoes, purple cabbage, and sauerkraut. When was the last time you had liverwurst ($6)? Never? This rustic pork-liver pâté arrives on good rye with dill pickles. It’s quite wonderful. Could liverwurst be the next foie gras?
Loreley is named after a creepy poem by Heinrich Heine about a stretch of the Rhine where sirens strike pornographic poses on the rocks, luring sailors to their deaths. By contrast, the recently opened Lederhosen takes its name from an ugly and uncleanable pair of gray suede shorts that come with suspenders attached. The back room of Lederhosen is decorated with several pairs, in addition to a mural of a mountain landscape so badly limned that an artist friend refused to sit facing it. Yet Lederhosen’s food is several notches above Loreley’s. You haven’t lived till you’ve chomped down on their superlative homemade pretzel—pliable, salty, and bronzed like a Teutonic lifeguard ($2.50).
But best of all are the sausages, grilled after being crosshatched with a knife to multiply the crisp surface area. Seven types are available individually with sauerkraut, red cabbage, pickled onions, and bread for $3 to $3.50. Currywurst is a Berlin passion, a bulging beef link swimming in a pool of ketchupy curry sauce. The deliciousness of the bratwurst and knockwurst are a given, but even they find themselves outrun by the smoky-as-hell kielbasa. The service at Lederhosen is slow, slow, slow, partly because beer delivery to the long tables takes priority. That’s OK, because the beers deserve special commendation, whether they be light or dark, served on tap, in bottles, or in darling little metal kegs. You can have beer mixed with Coke (a “diesel”) or beer mixed with fizzy lemon soda (a “radler”). Lederhosen ist bier wunderland.
There’s even a smoked beer (Schlenkerla Smokebeer, $6.50), which, I suggested one evening, makes the perfect accompaniment to the sausages. The artist disagreed: “It tastes like somebody put a cigarette out in it,” she complained, wrinkling her nose.