In 1974, when Pepo and Anni Kostenberger opened Metro Club in the shadow of Saint Alphonsus Church, at Southport and Wellington, Lakeview's traditionally German neighborhood was in transition. Although the area around Lincoln Avenue running north from Diversey was still home to a number of German delis and restaurants--including Zum Deutschen Eck and the vast Kuhn's Delicatessen & Liquors--"it was a not a great neighborhood," remembers Pepo.
Its heyday had come and gone 90 years earlier, before the village of Lakeview was annexed by the city in 1889. As a separate town with its own liquor laws and a more liberal view of social drinking than Chicago, Lakeview quickly became a popular place to open a bar and drew many of Chicago's German saloon keepers away from Old Town. They nicknamed their new home "Chicagoburg" and organized the Saloon Keeper's Society to counteract the growing temperance movement.
The Austrian Kostenbergers came to the U.S. in 1969. Pepo, a musician who had spent his whole life touring bars, hotels, and restaurants, took a job as a bandleader at a nightclub on Lincoln called the Moulin Rouge. When the Kostenbergers decided they'd like to try running their own place, they opened Metro Club as a beer hall, serving only drinks; two years later Anni began cooking in the closet-sized kitchen, where she still prepares oversize platters of Austrian and German comfort food. Since then, not much has changed except the neighborhood: as property values have risen, the old German establishments have faded away. When Zum Deutschen Eck closed last year, it followed Heidelberger Fass, Schwaben Stube, Schulien's, and Zum Lieben Augustine, all shuttered in the last decade or so.
In the midst of expensive town houses and condos, Metro Club remains an ongoing tribute to the old neighborhood, a cozy, wood-beamed restaurant serving heavy plates of pork, veal, and beef in a shadowy room that's filled to the brim with traditional tchotchkes. Carved wood statues of a German boy and girl perch above the booths that beckon patrons into the nonsmoking section at the back of the restaurant. Walls, rafters, and shelves are crowded with dolls, antique steins, Pepo's fishing pictures, cowbells, musical instruments (including three accordions and a tuba), and mounted game trophies. A smiling boar's head sports a red garden hat festooned with flowers and ribbons; the boar's back end is mounted separately.
Pepo proudly points out that his restaurant serves Austrian food, not German. "Austrian food versus German food is like comparing eating in Louisiana to Chicago," he says. "Due to the influences of neighbors like Hungary, the Czechs, and various groups of Slavs, Austrian food is prepared with more spices and uses different kinds of spices, like paprika."
Metro Club is not an option for a quick, light bite. Meals start off with enough rye bread and spicy Hungarian salami to make several sandwiches. Bowls of soup are big enough for a meal--for two. The ambitious can move on to Wiener schnitzel, the restaurant's most popular dish, or one of the three other pork schnitzels that threaten to overflow the 16-inch platters. Numerous other traditional options include slices of fork-tender roast veal served with coaster-sized pierogi and dumplings, or a veal shank modestly described as "for the hearty eater." There's homemade Debriziner Hungarian sausage, Austrian goulash ("the national dish," says the menu), and Kassler rippchen, a hubcap-sized slab of smoked pork that tastes like honey-baked ham and is served with homemade sauerkraut. The table shares a tureen of crispy new potatoes, boiled and then fried until golden brown. You won't possibly have room for dessert, but you should order it anyway: apple strudel or Sacher torte, served with real whipped cream.
Everything is prepared from scratch by Anni, and the kitchen can be leisurely. "Our food must be cooked properly, and this cooking takes some time," explains Pepo. "In 27 years we haven't had one complaint about the food--except that it's too much."
Wash it all down with a hearty European beer, since Metro Club doesn't serve any domestics. "Goulash and Miller Lite don't fit," says Pepo. BBK (Bayerische Brauerei Kaiserslautern) and Bitburger are on tap, available in 12-ounce, half-liter, and full-liter steins, while Austrian Stiegl's, "brewed since 1492" within the "traditions of the famous Austrian Purity Laws," comes in 17-ounce bottles.
Although their daughter, Marion, now works at the restaurant, Pepo and Anni still run Metro Club, and Pepo doesn't see that changing any time soon. "We love the business and love taking care of our customers," he says. "As a small business, we have to." Depending on how the evening's going, Pepo will even entertain patrons on the accordion. "That has spoiled the customers. Their first question is always, 'Hey Pepo, are you going to play tonight?'"
Metro Club is at 3032 N. Lincoln, 773-929-0622.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.