A German restaurant named Schroeder's has been open in downtown San Francisco for the past 121 years, though the merchants and sea captains who frequented the original lunch counter would be hard-pressed to recognize the California-German gastropub that it has recently become. When new owners Andy Chun and Jan Wiginton, who also own the bougie Press Club, took over the spot in the beginning of the year, they assured the public that they would preserve the place's legacy. But by forcibly bringing the restaurant into 2014 San Francisco, they lost part of what made it so endearing in the first place.
I spent a fair amount of time in the old Schroeder's — it was around the corner from the SF Weekly office and served beer in 42-ounce glass boots. It was usually only about half full and always had the feel of a restaurant that had fallen out of touch with the times. Though it had a certain kitschy charm, I was never able to shake the feeling that it could have been better than it was. The room was dark, with little to no natural light. Its distinct, cartoonish Herman Richter murals faded into the background. The bar area wasn't big enough to accommodate large groups, so everyone would have to cluster around worn, rickety tables and order from a waitress. It all felt old and tired, though of course the fact that it was almost aggressively unhip made it attractive in the first place.
Now it's swung in the other direction: aggressively hip, updated and serving artful, earnest California-German small plates and craft cocktails. Along with the schnitzel and bratwurst, you can order such of-the-moment dishes as roasted Brussels sprouts and a charcuterie plate. The bones of the room are the same: the wood-lined walls, the murals, the rosewood back bar that was brought around the Cape of Good Hope. But it's all been elegantly modernized. The back room, which was formerly a drab affair set aside for groups, has been opened up and partitioned from the front bar by a sheer curtain. Upfront is all long blond wood tables, miniature versions of the kind you see in German beer halls, big TV screens, and modern-day versions of those candle-chandeliers swashbucklers are always dropping on bad guys in movies.
The food at the old Schroeder's was never very good: oily wiener schnitzel, lifeless fries, a sad appetizer plate of boiled sausage slices that you'd eat with a toothpick. Its new chef Manfred Wrembel, previously of boundary-pushing restaurants like Plum and Incanto, has done an admirable job making heavy German beer hall food relevant to today's audiences, and, more importantly, the San Francisco climate that never really gets cold enough to make this kind of stick-to-the-bones food necessary.
His roasted Brussels sprouts are excellent, citrusy and sweet and perfectly roasted, standouts even at a time when anyone who dines out regularly is suffering from roasted Brussels sprout fatigue. Wiener schnitzel is a worthy competitor with other German restaurants in town now, well-fried but not oily; you could taste the quality of the veal underneath the breading, and the almonds and lemon zest on top brought a welcome freshness. An ambitious dish of thinly sliced beef tongue came beautifully arranged like flower petals, and had a zesty kick thanks to a pile of shaved horseradish.
Other dishes were fine, if not great. Wrembel's burger, topped with sauerkraut, was nothing more than a good hamburger, satisfying the requirements of being both juicy and beefy, though in a food-crazed town like S.F. a merely good burger isn't enough anymore. The fries that accompanied it were unfortunately cold, and no one came to check on us at lunch to send them back. Potato pancakes turned out to be the fanciest tater tots ever: Three birds' nests of grated, fried potatoes topped with horseradish and salmon paste, $13 for essentially six bites.
German restaurants need to know their way around meat. Bratwurst had a nice rounded flavor, and though it was more dry than juicy, it was well-reconstituted in the sauerkraut sauce on the plate. But the charcuterie plate was a major disappointment, with a few lifeless pates, including a soggy trotter terrine, though the chicken liver mousse was creamy and smooth.
As I sat in the new room, I tried to see the newspaper staff going back there, but the place is no longer scrappy and therefore no longer appealing; its crowd is now FiDi bros and tourists, its prices are higher than they used to be, its dinginess has been scrubbed away until the whole place gleams. There's even natural light from new picture windows looking out onto Front Street. The major deterrent, though, wasn't the cleanliness or the crowd but the noise level at happy hour, which got worse by the minute as people's drunken voices ricocheted off the wood walls, making conversation more or less impossible.
But to lament the makeover of the old, tired Schroeder's into something vibrant and fresh isn't really in the spirit of the place, which has changed so much in its past century of business that nostalgia for its most recent incarnation is virtually meaningless. The beer hall and wiener schnitzel emporium has changed locations three times since it opened in 1893; it hasn't been owned by anyone in the Schroeder family for nearly a century. Women weren't allowed inside for lunch until 1970. Small plates and stripped-down wood will have their day too, and then they'll become as old-fashioned as the beer stein collection that the new owners have preserved behind glass in the dining room, an exhibit of the restaurant's past.