Over the past few years, the section of Wisconsin Avenue north of the Social Safeway and south of the National Cathedral has been transformed. New bars and restaurants have opened, bringing with them a new (and younger) clientele. Rents have gone up, driving out Blockbuster and underperforming eateries to make way for more vibrant enterprises.
Despite the progress in the area, there are still a few institutions whose loyal clientele keep them in business year after year (and I’m not just talking about JP’s and Good Guys). Sushi-Ko is one of them; so is “Plain Old” Pearson’s Liquors. For us, though, the throwback that has the greatest impact is the one that has been serving up traditional European fare for more than sixty years now: Old Europe.
Though the menu includes some French and Hungarian influences, Old Europe is first and foremost a German restaurant. Entrees are named in German and then described in English. Beer is sold by the half-liter as well as the pint. Most menu items are hearty combinations of grilled or roasted meat and root vegetables served in generous portions. It just doesn’t get more authentic than this.
Our German love note (tender, but sensible and efficient) after the jump.
Opened in 1948, Old Europe has been drawing patrons from the surrounding neighborhood (and all over the world, really) ever since. As soon as you set foot in the restaurant, the old world charm is on full display. Oil paintings adorn the walls and crests of the various German states and towns ring the dining room. Soft lighting and formal place settings reinforce the feeling that you are in a traditional German dining room. Servers in dirndl, the dresses you think of when you think of German maidens, take your order in lightly accented English.
Sounds a bit over the top, right? One of those places that tries so hard to evoke an image that it ends up becoming a caricature? Think again. Somehow there’s an earnestness to the whole thing that makes it clear you’re visiting another place and time as you enjoy your wurst and schnitzel. The Herolds, who have owned Old Europe since 1970, have done a wonderful job of preserving its character despite all of the pressures of the outside world to change.
In addition to the main dining room, there is a large private space downstairs that is decked out as a traditional German beer hall (or Rathskeller). The atmosphere is fun and festive, with a bar at the back, a piano, and picnic table seating. With room to seat as many as 80 guests and private dinner menus that run less than $40 per person (before beer, of course), it’s an often-overlooked option for large groups looking to dine in the Georgetown area.
Of course all the charm and personality in the old world can’t account for a place like this lasting more than 60 years. Ultimately, it’s the food that keeps people coming back year after year. Without a doubt, Old Europe delivers on its promise of traditional fare as well as a series of seasonal menus that reflect the various celebrations that take place throughout the year in Germany.
For our dinner, we stuck with some of the most traditional dishes on the menu for our entrees, but we decided to start with soups from the special summer menu. A cold soup of cucumber and potatoes came out silky and creamy, topped with a generous helping of dill and offering just a little acidic note to cut the richness. A hot mushroom soup, on the other hand, piled richness on top of richness for a truly indulgent start to the meal. We followed these up with two different meat platters – a selection of sausages served with potato dumplings and sauerkraut, and an assortment of grilled meats that also included pork steak and chicken breast as well as a handful of grilled vegetables.
These may not set off alarm bells for the average foodie, but their straightforward and traditional presentations were just what we were looking for. The sausages had surprisingly complex flavors, especially when paired up with the mustard that our server informed us was made on site. Shaved apple in the sauerkraut gave it a softer, more nuanced flavor than your average vinegar bomb. And the half-liters of beer we washed everything down with couldn’t have hurt our enjoyment of the experience, either.
As for those seasonal menus: from now through August, you can enjoy even more carnivorous options as part of their Summer Grillfest. After that, the Oktoberfest celebration kicks off in mid-September and runs through the end of October with live music Thursday through Sunday. November through February, feast on wild game like venison, boar and goose during their Game Festival. The real draw for those in the know, however, is Spargel season. From March through May, Old Europe participates in the annual German celebration of asparagus, the first of the spring vegetables. They even prepare the highly-prized white asparagus (grown under mounds of dirt to prevent it from acquiring any color).
Regardless of when you visit, you can count on Old Europe to treat you like an honored guest and to feed you well – at least that’s been our experiences there throughout the years. It was as if nothing had changed since the last time we visited – and in the case of a restaurant like Old Europe, that’s a real compliment. Here’s hoping it’s just the same again the next time we stop in (Spargel season, I’m looking at you).