It might be a stretch to call the hearty trappings of Central Europe a palate cleanser, but in a city saturated in Neapolitan pizzas, French bistros (see page 74), and a growing number of izakaya joints, a plate of wiener schnitzel with lingonberry sauce offers a refreshing break.
Not to say this is a complete novelty. For a long time, Suppenküche in Hayes Valley had the hip-with-spätzle market cornered. Walzwerk and Schmidt’s followed suit. But the turning point might have come in January when Leopold’s, a chummy Austrian gasthaus—complete with dark wood wainscoting and egg-yolk yellow walls cluttered just so with mounted deer heads and family portraits—took over the former Antica Trattoria space in Russian Hill. No one’s yet calling for an end to margherita madness, but it does say something about the changing of the guard.
The owners of Leopold’s are industry stalwarts Klaus and Albert Rainer. The brothers, who grew up in Salzberg, Austria, came here in their 20s and opened several restaurants including Hyde Street Bistro and Metropol in Union Square (the latter of which they still own). Their new endeavor—named after their grandfather, a mustachioed trader whose goods appropriately included wine—is something they’ve been planning for years. What they didn’t expect was the instant European community that Leopold’s has drawn. “Every night I meet about 15 people who are Swiss, German, or Austrian,” says Albert, who mans the kitchen while his gregarious brother works the floor. “I’ve been living here for 20 years and I’m wondering, where have you been all this time?”
In true gasthaus spirit, Leopold’s prices are friendly. And just in time for our city’s obsession with European beers, the selection here runs from Belgian to Dutch. Steins include a liter (a mass), a 2-liter (a boot) and even a 5-liter. “One person often orders a boot for themselves,” says Albert, who’s partial to the Bitburger pilsner. “And they still can walk out of here.”
Austrian food is influenced by Northern Italy, should you wonder about the pappardelle. And yes, there’s house-made smoked salmon with potato pancakes, but there’s also pig trotters with a poached egg and beef short ribs over mashed potatoes, all topped with delicate onion rings. The Rainers’ mother’s recipe for chicken soup with dumplings is flawless and leaves plenty of room for the great apple strudel.
But this Euro party is just getting started. Over at Bar Tartine, Nicholas Balla has taken over. The chef, who made his name at the izakaya Nombe, is Hungarian, and the new menu will reflect that. Not that Bar Tartine is going to be dressing their servers in cheeky dirndl dresses. For now, Leopold’s still has the market on that.
*Published in the April issue of 7x7 Magazine