16 April 2010

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Von Westernhagen's?"

I remember, last fall, just before I went in to Glendale's German restaurant Zum Stammtisch to discover "Who Goes There?," looking down the road to its rival eatery Von Westernhagen's and feeling sorry for it. Zum sits right on a busy intersection. There's foot traffic. Von W, though only a block or so away, might as well be on a country lane. It stands there by its lonesome, no businesses to the left or right of it. I liked the place on first sight and vowed I would return soon to Glendale (two trains and bus ride for me) to pay a call

So which is better, Zum or Von W? Hard to say. Zum's food is probably a notch above, but Von W. has homemade bratwurst in its favor. Zum's atmosphere is cozy, but also a bit theme-parky. Von W. has no pretensions, and puts you immediately at ease. Simply put, Zum feels like a fun restaurant, but Von W. feels like a home that also serves strangers food. I like them both, but Von W. has my heart.

Who Goes There? Von Westernhagen's
The two great German restaurant survivors of Glendale—Von Westernhagen'sand previous Who Goes There? subject Zum Stammtisch—lie within a couple blocks of either other, on opposite sides of a funeral home that consistently feeds them with grieving eaters. (Other landmarks like Gebhardt's and the 150-year-old Niederstein's have closed in the last decade.) Of the two, Von Westernhagen is the less famous, and it's easy to see why. It's the pure and natural Betty to Zum Stammtisch's tarted-up Veronica. The walls are not crowded with Bavarian kitsch. No antlers or beer steins hang from the chandeliers. Perhaps because it was founded a generation earlier than Zum, Von Westernhagen does not put its German-ness in quotes. It has the unvarnished look of the kind of supper club you still find on residential corners in the western reaches of Chicago.
Enter the wooden breakfront and you're given two choices. Go through the door to the left and you're in the separate tap room, with its long bar, Hofbräuhaus on tap and non-working wooden telephone booth. You'll find a few old veterans holding up the bar here to keep you company. Go through the right door and you reach the sprawling dining hall, a rectangular space filled with square tables topped with fake flowers and paper napkins.
Black timbers and curious old portraits of comical drunks break up the white walls. The kind of china cabinet you see in suburban dining rooms serves as a bus station. Though decor is church-social minimal, the room immediately envelops you in its cozy embrace. Diners often linger for hours, my chatty, chubby, young waitress told me. "Also, the servings are so large, they can't move," she added.
Von Westernhagen is still run by the family that founded it, and they own the building it's in. It must be one of the only restaurants in New York that makes its own bratwurst. Patrons take home frozen links by the dozens, and I don't blame them—it's as good a sausage as I've had. I had plenty opportunity to admire the meat: My bratwurst plate came with three of them, as well as mashed potatoes, red cabbage and soup. Of the two mustard dispensers, the spicy was the one with the red rubber band around it, I was told. A sign told me that tartare on pumpernickel bread was a Tuesday luncheon special.
Von Westernhagen is perhaps more blessed with mourners than Zum Stammtisch, as there is a funeral parlor on either side of the restaurant. The night I ate there, a funeral party of 17, with no reservations, dropped by. Otherwise, patrons include the elderly faithful, from Glendale and beyond, who remember when this neighborhood was a German stronghold. One man with a cane, who arrived ahead of his wife, read the menu to her over the phone. "They got the Sauerbraten with dumpling. Broiled Pork Chop. Weiner Rostbraten." His barking voice filled the room, but bothered nobody. 
—Brooks of Sheffield


Krista said...

When I moved to NYC in the late ‘90s I ended up in Ridgewood, not really knowing neighborhoods yet. I was interested in all the old German holdouts and checked out a few nearby Glendale bars for a NY Post article. Gebhardt’s was fine, so too, Zum Stammtisch, but Von Westerhagen scared the crap out of me because there was a not-covert-in-least multi-generation neo-nazi contingent greeting each other, “sieg heil, white power.” As a Northwesterner, this wasn’t shocking in and of itself but I hadn’t expected it in NYC (and haven’t encountered anything like it since). Who knows if it was a fluke (this was the bar, not the restaurant) but my allegiances have been with Zum Stammtisch ever since. Actually, I'm kind of partial to the German restaurants of Staten Island.

Unknown said...

I like them both, but VW is better in my book! Eat there every couple weeks.

I notice a lot of people go there after visiting a wake at the funeral homes across the street.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

That's totally creepy, Krista! Let's hope that era has passed.

Anonymous said...


Ken K. said...

Krista's comment doesn't surprise me at all. I used to hang out in Ridgewood Bars back in the 70's and that kind of talk was all too common (and embarrassing, especially so for this 1/2 German-American whose Dad fought on Our Side).

Back then there was even a bar in Ridgewood called the Eagle's Nest. Any student of WWII history could tell you the significance of that name.