If you don't count the Rheinland restaurant in Independence, there's only one German joint left. The 43-year-old Berliner Bear has been located in the same low-slung, buff-brick commercial building at 7815 Wornall Road since 1962, and a previous tenant (Fritz Lindig, the owner of Blackie's) served German food in the space for at least a decade before that. So little has changed -- inside and outside the building -- that the entire restaurant feels as if it's trapped in the amber of the Kennedy era. So 20th century.
When Joel Womack and his German-born wife, Nettie, turned Blackie's into the Berliner Bear, this neighborhood was still considered Kansas City's southern suburb, the perfect setting for a cozy little restaurant decorated like someone's basement rec room. The floor is red linoleum, the walls are paneled in dark wood, and every square inch is decorated with some beer-related adornment: mirrors, banners, plaques, pennants, lamps, signs, plates, posters and carved tableaus. The tables are swathed in black- or red-checked vinyl, and the "chandeliers" are made from barrel staves, with faux-Colonial yellow globes.
One wall is covered with framed photographs of the Womacks' children and grandchildren, along with dozens of Polaroids of favorite customers. Bill Womack, who took over the restaurant from his parents ten years ago, barely resembles the dark-haired kid in the 1970s family portrait hanging over the jukebox. But he's one of the only things inside Berliner Bear that has changed over the past four decades. Everything else is caught in the time warp, including a coin-operated machine in the grimy men's bathroom (so primitive that it looks like something excavated from the ruins of Pompeii) that sells "Savage Bliss" condoms and "Pixie Nude" decals.
It's all weird enough that you wouldn't be half-surprised to see Jimmy Hoffa and Jayne Mansfield sharing a plate of schnitzel over in the smoking section. But my friend Patrick corrected this notion as he stuck his fork into a curl of paprika-dusted ham from the cold-plate appetizer tray. "Not Jayne Mansfield," he said. "Marlene Dietrich."
Well, the late German-born sex symbol did have a fondness for fat sausages, which are some of the bigger attractions on the lunch, dinner and Sunday-morning breakfast menus. There are sausage slices on the cold plate, too, which is generously piled with meats and cheeses and oversized slices of buttered rye bread. On the Friday night I dined with Patrick, Bob and Peter (whose German-American mother knew her way around a cabbage roll), the Berliner Bear's dining room was less than half-full, but the place had a buoyant spirit anyway, helped along by the lively German music playing on a CD player mounted underneath the mirrored bar shelves.
Because German food retains the stigma of being heavy, fattening and unexotic, business has been uneven at Berliner Bear lately. Bill Womack recalled a recent Wednesday night when not one patron stepped through the front door.
"But we're still pumping along," he said. "A lot of our clientele is older, but we're getting new people in here all the time."
I guess I'm one of those new people, if only because it took me 20 years to work up enough interest in eating at the restaurant, which looks unrelentingly grim from the outside. Even if I did get an occasional yen for sauerbraten, I had mentally crossed Berliner Bear off my list for purely aesthetic reasons. Which was completely shallow on my part -- when I was finally dragged into the joint to eat a German breakfast one Sunday morning, I was absolutely charmed by the place. Then again, I have a soft spot for 1960s rec rooms.
I also have a not-so-secret fondness for heavy, fattening and unexotic food. If I had only known that Berliner Bear does an absolut fantastisch job preparing stuff you rarely see on modern restaurant menus -- pork roast, goulash, liver and onions, pork knuckles -- I would have been more adventurous in checking out the place.
The dinners are inexpensive, and the portions are more than ample -- two reasons that the place should be a lot busier than it is.
"I never think about German food," Bob said as he was making a hog of himself on a fork-tender rolled pork roast baked with apples. "But when I do, I like it."
I like any food that comes with a baseball-sized potato dumpling. This one was a shade more dense than I had expected ("My mother makes them much fluffier," Peter sniped), but it was very good. And I was able to finally satisfy my longing for a big plate of sauerbraten, the sweet-and-sour beef dish. Womack says he marinates the meat for ten days in bay leaves and allspice, then bakes it with cracked pepper and molasses. This succulent version wasn't particularly heavy, although the vinegary hot potato salad and the big mound of slightly sweet red cabbage that came along with it almost did me in.
Patrick finished off his German goulash in record time, even if he was disappointed that the egg noodles weren't homemade -- the long-simmered chunks of beef in a tangy tomato sauce were more to his liking, and he loved the dumpling. Peter, the fussy Germaniac, had brazenly ordered one of the Berliner Bear's least requested dinner offerings, the boiled pig knuckles, and was thrilled with the two giant knuckles that were set in front of him. Slightly gray and dry-looking, they weren't exactly a visual sensation, but the meat inside was surprisingly tender and flavorful, mildly seasoned with salt and pepper. "Excellent," he pronounced, adding that the sauerkraut, flecked with caraway seeds, was "the real thing." Womack told me later that he rarely sells more than two or three orders of the knuckles a week.
The restaurant was out of apple strudel that night, so the four of us shared a slice of cheesecake with a sour-cream topping and a thick, fudgy slab of what our server insisted was German chocolate cake. We agreed that it was a dark-chocolate layer cake held together with brown-sugar-and-coconut frosting. But who gives a damn? German chocolate cake is an American innovation anyway, named not for the Deutschland but for Sam German, who created Baker's Chocolate.
The Berliner Bear's version of an even more American dish -- biscuits and gravy -- is a potent reason to haul out of bed on Sunday morning for the breakfast shift (which ends promptly at noon). It's a perfect combination of big, hot, fluffy biscuits and a thick, creamy gravy loaded with ground sausage. The rest of the breakfast menu skews heavily toward traditional German fare -- a steaming, thick apple pancake (big enough to share); eggs served with bratwurst and German fried potatoes; and a mixture of potatoes, cheese and eggs all scrambled together. The music, however, is strictly American pop. On a recent Sunday it was Simon and Garfunkel's greatest hits followed by 30 minutes of Randy Travis. And for some reason, all that beer memorabilia on the walls is a lot more amusing at 8 a.m.
The Sunday-morning service is attentive but a shade slow because there's only one waitress working the whole room. Everyone is very friendly, though. Every time I walk into the place bleary-eyed, I see people I know, and they always say the same thing: "Did you even know this place was here?"