Contrary to popular belief, German cuisine is not an oxymoronic phrase. Though traditional food from the Fatherland does tend to be heavier on meat and carbs than the modern American diet, it like Southern food, which has been getting more respect from foodies in recent years is as capable of being nuanced, innovative, and highbrow as any of its more popular siblings (see: Spanish tapas, French everything.) For me, the secret to the perfect German restaurant is a place that balances tradition and modernity, in both cuisine and atmosphere. And then there's the spaetzle, the paisley-shaped egg pasta that's as ubiquitous a side dish in Germany as french fries are in America and one that's hard to get right. Like gnocchi or risotto, the dish requires a certain attention to achieve its true potential. If the place does spaetzle well, you can assume it probably gets most other things right too. Guten appetit!
Best. Spaetzle. Ever. Yes, this place won the prize for all-around best German food in the Bay, with its traditional menu expertly executed in an understatedly chic setting: white walls, beer hallstyle tables, and a ceiling hung artistically with dried plants. The centerpiece is the bar, setting a casual, festive tone with plenty of beer choices. Everything I tried here was amazing, including a venison dish with cherry sauce. Potato pancakes were strange more like hashbrowns than potato patties but delicious. And the meal started with brown bread and chive butter, both excellent.
525 Laguna, SF. (415) 252-9289, www.suppenkuche.com
This small, intimate East German eatery has a fine dining feel and the cuisine to match without giving up tradition. Roulade is made with high-quality meat and a pickle spear as its center. Red cabbage strikes the perfect balance between sweet and sour. And the sauerkraut I took home was so delicious accented with caraway that I finished it before it made it to the fridge. The only disappointment was its spaetzle, which was a bit overcooked. Wine and beer offerings are fantastic, and there are several decent veggie menu options. The best indicator of its worthiness? Both the servers and the people sitting behind me were actually from Germany.
381 S. Van Ness, SF. (415) 551-7181, www.walzwerk.com
If there's an American stereotype of a German restaurant, this is it except maybe smaller. The tiny, wood-panelled eatery has the feel of a mountain lodge and the hearty menu to match. Schnitzelhaus isn't trying to jump on the modern cuisine train they're just doing German food with simple earnestness. This place gets extra points for its extensive menu of schnitzels (true to its name) most places offer only two options, weiner (chicken or veal with lemon) or jaeger (pork with mushroom sauce) and its offerings of German wines. I was unimpressed with the spaetzle, which was thin, greasy, and not grilled enough. But the lentils are to die for.
294 Ninth St., SF. (415) 864-4038, www.schnitzel-haus.net
Left over from some kind of German American past (they've been around since 1893), Schroeder's is like a German restaurant set up in an Elks lodge. It's not trying to do the cutesy, kitschy thing: its decor is stark and no-frills. The food, too, is no nonsense decent, but not entirely remarkable. The potato pancakes were too dense and greasy for my taste. The jagerschnitzel was overbreaded though the mushroom sauce was delicious. The best thing about Schroeder's, though, was the spaetzle, which was fluffy, doughy, and not too oily.