When I can't look at another plate of pasta, there's nothing like a real ethnic neighborhood place (Italian restaurants having become too mainstream to qualify), especially one with singing and dancing, to refresh my palate. Invariably, they're Eastern European, Greek, or German. I'm stymied as to the common denominator. Greeks and Eastern Europeans have a reputation for being emotional, full of joie de vivre--but Germans? But there they are at Chicago Brauhaus in Lincoln Square, noisily eating, drinking, table hopping, and dancing to "Lili Marlene." They polka, they rhumba, they samba and waltz, and--this is why my hairdresser loves this place--they even do a folk dance called the Chicken. Not to be confused with the Funky Chicken, it's a kind of square dance where every once in a while the dancers stop and imitate a you-know-what.
Chicago Brauhaus is seriously German, no redundancy intended, with its oak-paneled dining room, hunting-scene prints, beer steins, and Wagnerian-proportioned waitresses. Any doubts about the ethnic origins of most of the customers were laid to rest when the musicians sang happy birthday first to Ingeborg, then Irma, then Max--and ultimately Adolph.
German numbers are sung by a sad-eyed accordionist who looks like he's in musician hell, accompanied by a drummer. There's also a man with a Tony Bennett-ish voice (but not delivery, thank God) who sings 50s ballads and Latin numbers like "Bessame Mucho." Sadly, he never put on the huge silver-trimmed sombrero propped on a nearby chair.
My first visit was on a quiet weeknight. The food, with one exception, was very good. On the table was a basket filled with fresh rye bread and an exceptional coarse pumpernickel. All entrees are accompanied by a choice of soup or salad; potatoes, spaetzle, or dumplings; and a vegetable. I chose lentil soup, served with a shaker of vinegar to enhance the already hearty flavor and a salty seasoning sauce called Zanek (sort of a German Kitchen Bouquet). My roast goose ($14.95), so popular in Europe and Israel but rarely on Chicago menus, was crisp on the outside, juicy but not fatty on the inside, with fluffy potato dumplings and sweet and sour cabbage. However, though the Bavarian chopped steak with mushroom sauce ($7.95) was flavorful, the portion was too small; and the hot apple strudel ($2.75) that tempted me off my diet and sent visions of sugar highs dancing in my head had a tough crust that brought me down instead. Hell hath no fury like a woman who has just wasted calories.
A Saturday-night visit was a different story. The restaurant was jammed with gemutlich revelers, the service correspondingly slow, and the food not nearly as good. As with several of the other tables, ours was a family party. The three ladies drank ladylike Chablis; the guys and I drank imported German beer. The ladies also unhelpfully all ordered the same main course, baked chicken ($9.95), which, circumstances notwithstanding, was your basic pallid, flavorless hotel Passover fowl, accompanied by fried potatoes and overcooked green beans. In contrast, my liver dumpling soup was terrific, the dumpling delicate enough to float in its clear consomme. Then my luck ran out. My sauerbraten ($10.95) was a disaster, thin slices of beef drowned in a lake of gravy, and way too sauer, although the accompanying spaetzle were firm and buttery. The salad, iceberg lettuce with a couple of pale tomato chunks, was coated with a dressing that could have passed for Kraft or Wishbone. Smoked pork loin ($10.95) tasted, boringly, like pork.
Dessert, as usual, restored our spirits. The plum cake topped with whipped cream ($3) had such a nicely tart flavor that we ordered another round; but the touted Asbach ice cream ($4), rich and creamy on its own, was spoiled by the overpoweringly strong brandy flavor of the macerated fruit.
Even though the food on this particular evening wasn't up to par, the music and dancing made up for it. I don't care to dwell on how we looked to the other dancers, but we were fascinated by them, especially a Lotte Lenya-type redhead with her Aristotle Onassis look-alike husband who, although way up there agewise, didn't miss a number. We later found out they're regulars who come every Saturday night, all the way from the Ritz-Carlton, probably by limo so they don't have to worry about parking.
Chicago Brauhaus, 4732 N. Lincoln, is open 11:30 AM to 2 AM Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, 11 AM to 3 AM Saturday, and noon to 2 AM Sunday. It's closed Tuesday. Dinner for two including dessert, coffee, and tip runs about $54. Reservations are essential on weekend evenings. For further information call 784-4444.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.