San Francisco has a wonderful grouping of German restaurants, each with its own niche. Supremely classic Schroeder’s downtown is the spot for Oktoberfest and wood-panelled everything, while Schubert’s Bakery in the Richmond has been around nearly as long. In Russian Hill, Leopold’s has a surprisingly contemporary brunch menu to round out the schnitzel, while Suppenküche is a compact, pleasantly affordable Hayes Valley spot where drinking beer out of a glass boot doesn’t feel wrong in the least.
In the Mission, there are two: the warm, 10-year-old Schmidt’s with its family-style menu and substantial beer selection, and the austere yet somehow warmer Walzwerk, which has always been my favorite. The last time I ate there was right after the Folsom Street Fair, when it looked like the Island of Misfit Toys had occupied Checkpoint Charlie. There are several notable places on the Peninsula, too, like Redwood City’s Gourmet Haus (and J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s forthcoming Wursthall in San Mateo should draw some crowds).
North Beach’s recent addition, The Salzburg, fits right in by not fitting in. Although it’s technically Austrian and not German — and including Austria as part of some larger Germany admittedly has a historically unsavory precedent — you could make a case for a sort of pan-Central European identity. Not quite a proper A-frame chalet, its roof nonetheless peaks in the middle — a new feature since the space’s days as Cinecittá — although you’re going to want to sit outside under one of the four heat lamps even on a damp, chilly evening. Think of their light as alpenglow if you have to. They’re even centered on a fire pit for extra warmth.
House-made sausages — go with the pork-and-cheese käsekreiner, although there are also rabbit and spicy lamb merguez, all $14 — crackle with fat and spring to life alongside a bit of gherkin-and-shallot relish. There’s also a little pretzel torpedo to help you mop up any residual mustard. The no-nonsense, nary-a-fresh-vegetable-anywhere German approach to cooking rewards the insatiable appetite, and no more so than with a brothy bowl of goulash ($15) whose short ribs have stewed for days. But in a world where there’s a stealth arms race to see who out there can lard up a plate of French fries with the most stuff, The Salzburg’s jäger pommes ($12) strike just the right chord. With wild mushrooms, gruyere, and bacon, they go the highbrow route but without sacrificing anything in some effort to appear elegant.
The wine list, with several dozen options by the glass, is full of treasures. A Moric Blaufränkish ($15) — a red varietal that’s not well known outside its native Austria, and therefore likely undervalued — was the standout. It’s subtle yet well-matched for assertive food, and not for nothing did The New York Times single it out as the best in its category last fall. These things make me wary, but the house red and house white were on tap, and the red is a juicy Austrian blend that’s quite excellent for $11. And the Käli Kovek Olaszrizling, a Hungarian variant of its better-known Austrian cousin, was bright and acidic, agile at cutting through all the fat.
Poised right at the increasingly less defined point between wine bar and restaurant, The Salzburg is probably the opposite of Walzwerk in every way — except for the bratwurst. Like the U.S. and Britain, they’re two countries separated by a common language. But I think I have a new favorite.
The Salzburg, 663 Union St., 415-673-1234, no website.