Because traditional German food tends to be so heavy, I try to avoid it — I'm getting fatter than Yogi Bear these days — unless my occasional craving for bratwurst and hot potato salad becomes so overwhelming that I'm compelled to drive to Independence to eat at the Rheinland (208 North Main). I have to confess that I've always liked the Rheinland better; compared with the dowdy Berliner Bear, it's cleaner, friendlier and has better strudel.
What Berliner Bear had was a long history: It was opened by Joel Womack and his German-born wife, Nettie, in 1962. Devoted fans liked the fact that it had changed so little over the years. The dining room looked like a Kennedy-era basement rec room, including one wall covered with framed photos of the Womack family.
In recent years, Bill Womack took over the operation from his aging parents. By most accounts, he was the one who made the decision to rent out the dining room to a cheery group of beer-swilling American neo-Nazis ("Springtime for Hitler," May 12, 2005), which got just enough local publicity to seriously sour the restaurant's already faltering business.
When Womack didn't renew his liquor license in 2006, it was a gloomy omen: What's sauerbraten without beer? After complaining about his not-so-bearish business to the Star last fall, Womack went ahead and put the Bear into permanent hibernation.
Rick Hellman, editor of The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, was one of the sources who gave the Pitch a heads up about the neo-Nazi nosh a couple of years ago. But he had no idea that the Bear had closed. "I never ate there," he says. "And even though I think the owner made a mistake to host the neo-Nazis, I wouldn't have held it against them. German food is not my cup of tea."