Top

dining

Stories

 

Hands on your buzzers, everyone! Here's a trivia question: "High-school seniors share this in common with Cafe Berlin." (Insert Jeopardy music here.)

If you answered "What is 1995?," you'd be right. In 1995, most of those seniors were in diapers, and Cafe Berlin, Denver's longtime standby for hearty German fare, opened in its original location, on East 17th Avenue. Bill Clinton was president, movies were rented on VHS from Blockbuster, and everyone knew all the moves to the Macarena.

A lot has changed in seventeen years.

Cafe Berlin is now in its third home in seventeen years.
Mark Manger
Cafe Berlin is now in its third home in seventeen years.

Location Info

Map

Cafe Berlin

1600 Champa St., Unit 230
Denver, CO 80202

Category: Restaurant > German

Region: Downtown Denver

Details

Cafe Berlin
Herring $6.95
Potato pancakes $4
Tomato salad $3.50
Gurkensalat $3.50
Split-pea soup $3.50
Currywurst $8.95
Wiener schnitzel (lunch) $10.95
Jägerschnitzel $18.95
Kohlrouladen $13.95
Rouladen $19.95
Apple strudel $5.25
1600 Champa Street
303-377-5896
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; 4-10 p.m. Saturday; 4-8 p.m. Sunday

Related Stories

More About

Photos: Behind the scenes at Cafe Berlin

Or has it? When you step inside the current home of Cafe Berlin — it moved to a second-story space above the 16th Street Mall last year, after six years on 14th Street — you feel like you could be back in the '90s, chuckling at Bubba, toting around a boombox, and eating the same gravy-covered schnitzel.

German-born Marlene Garrett, who purchased the restaurant from its founder in 1998, helped design the original menu. She's been a presence in the kitchen from the beginning, and under her culinary and managerial leadership, Cafe Berlin has successfully navigated nearly two decades of boom-and-bust economies. Such longevity is to be admired — indeed, envied — in this notoriously tricky industry, but it's come at a cost. In a city where creativity and innovation now reign, where menus change quarterly, if not monthly, and diners take for granted tenets espoused by both Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, this steady-Eddie approach translates into a dining experience both tired and outdated. If ever a place were in need of intervention by Restaurant: Impossible, this is it.

As you climb the stairs to Cafe Berlin, you can never be sure what — or who — you'll find. Come at lunch, and the gold-and-burgundy dining room, with beer steins lining shelves and a dominant mahogany bar, might be buzzing with men grabbing liters of German beer on tap and tucking in to large plates of bratwurst and sides. At dinner the place can be so empty — as it was on one recent visit — that you're afraid to talk for fear that the few other guests might overhear. At times like those, the brilliantly colored street scenes hanging on the walls seem sad, a reminder of pre-war Europe's faded glory.

The menu at both meals is large, with eleven appetizers, eleven lunch entrees and nearly twenty dinner entrees. Many recipes were handed down by Garrett's grandmother — and they feel like it, with more heavy sauces and breading than I've seen in a sit-down restaurant in a long time. While Garrett and current chef Luis Diaz do tinker with the food somewhat, offering more salads in the summer and more stick-to-your-bones specials in the winter, the bulk of the offerings has hardly changed over the years.

Uninitiated diners might order an appetizer, perhaps the herring or potato pancakes. Not pickled in-house, the fish is cut in large, uneven pieces and tossed haphazardly on a mound of lettuce without any hint of the promised wine sauce. Potato pancakes, two per plate, are so pale and undercooked, even the sour cream and homemade applesauce can't make up for their flabbiness and lack of salt (a chronic problem across the menu). But since entrees come with bread, soup or salad and a choice of two sides, you don't really need a first course — and two of the better appetizers can be ordered as the soup or salad course. The split-pea soup, full of rich flavor from the ham, is so good you'll finish every bite. Gurkensalat, a salad of razor-thin cucumbers bathed in dill-spiked sour cream, is also delicious. Skip the tomatoes vinaigrette, though; on numerous occasions, the kitchen sent out hard, pink tomato wedges baring lots of skin but little flesh, incapable of soaking up the marinade.

Schnitzel, one of the best-loved German dishes, can be ordered at both lunch and dinner. In the daytime, there's only one option: classic wiener schnitzel (made from humanely raised veal, incidentally, one clue that the millennium has passed). The dish — a large cutlet of breaded veal accompanied by lemon wedges — falls sadly short of being lovable, however. One time it was too tough to be cut with either teeth or a knife — quite a feat, given that schnitzel should get a tenderizing pound. Another time, moisture from the mountain of fried onions on top made the soggy breading slip off.

There's more schnitzel variety at dinner, and servers are helpful in narrowing down the seven choices. (They should know the menu; most have been with the restaurant for at least five years, and one has been here for thirteen.) Trust them when they steer you to the jägerschnitzel, which comes breaded and covered with mushroom gravy. The flavors of veal, breading and mushroom go well together, making you understand why schnitzel is so popular in Germany. Listen, too, when they suggest the rouladen. A roast beef sandwich of sorts (without the bread), this family recipe features thin strips of beef layered with pickles, bacon, mustard and onions, then rolled. The dish succeeds where others don't because it has sufficiently strong flavors to push through the flat sour-cream gravy. Stray from your server's advice, though, and you might end up with the currywurst — bratwurst slathered with thick curried tomato sauce — or the kohlrouladen, stuffed cabbages soaked under a beef gravy so gelatinous it could be straight out of a school cafeteria.

None of the sides are standouts. Hot German potato salad (a lunch-only side) is so un-vinegary that it could almost pass for the boiled potatoes, another option. Spätzle, those delightful egg noodles you'd associate with your grandmother if she were German (or Polish, like mine), would benefit from more time in the pan to evaporate the water. German-fried potatoes, with morsels of Yukon golds browned with onions, are woefully under-seasoned and good for little more than soaking up sauce. (Given how many sauces are on the menu — cream, paprika cream, mushroom cream, sour cream, etc. — it's a safe bet that at least one entree at the table is drenched in one.) And the sauerkraut and red cabbage are sweeter than most desserts.

A better choice for that last course is the whipped-cream-topped apple strudel. Made in-house (the only dessert that is), this traditional pastry features a nicely tart filling and tender crust. But it's not sweet enough to erase the sour disappointment left by a meal at Cafe Berlin.

Next time I'm nostalgic for the '90s, I'll skip the schnitzel, stuffed cabbage and tomato salad. Instead, I'll buy some truffle oil and brush up on the Macarena.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
18 comments
ghecko13
ghecko13

I think the writer is in need of an intervention. Do you know anything about good food? I really like the selection, the service, the beer, and the outstanding food. I like to try different cuisines and Denver is definitely lacking in German food. If you like to eat boring food then you probably shouldn't eat here. This is by far one of my favorite restaurants in Colorado.  If you want great German food you should eat at Cafe Berlin!!

lm76
lm76

I can't believe how completely off base this review is. Cafe Berlin has amazing authentic german cuisine. I go there to experience the same food that enjoyed when visiting germany. What are you looking for a German american fusion? If you cant go to a restaurant and enjoy their specialty perhaps you should stick to something you understand and can appreciate. I have tried almost all of their dishes and every one of them was perfect, borderline addictive. I really hope anyone reading this article will realize it is just the authors opinion You know what they say about opinions..... give Cafe Berlin a try. I realize I'm just one person too, so check the online reviews .. Urban spoon 4 stars Yelp 4 stars trip advisor 4.5 stars that is a compilation of 450 opinions. Looks like the author has been outvoted.

ian.nissen
ian.nissen

As someone who currently lives in Germany, and has a great appreciation and knowledge for German cuisine, I find this article to be horribly incorrect.  The largest problem with the author's statement is that typically cuisine which comes from a national origin, is unique to that national origin.  The menu has been the way its been because it's reflective of German cuisine.  Cafe Berlin offers, in my opinion, wonderful German food which is of great quality, and just as good and authentic as it is here in Germany.  This isn't Bennigan's, people don't go to Cafe Berlin for new reinventions of the wheel.  Your article's logos is like telling the Italian's that pasta has been done already, so they should really start reinventing their entire national cuisine.  If you want good German food, you're going to get schweinekotellet mit Äpfeln and sauerkraut, because that's what it is, German food.

patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator editortopcommenter

I'd like to publish some of these comments in our print edition, ideally with full names/towns (we don't publish e-mail addresses). Denver Dave? Steveville? Five Points? Mmmmm? Let me know at patricia.calhoun@westword.com -- and if you'd rather submit a replacement letter, that's fine, too.

jenna-furrr
jenna-furrr topcommenter

I'm gonna have to git yer back here, Gretchen. Helga's is much, much better, and when I want to go out for good German food I don't wanna get stuck eating stuff I can make better at home, from mixes. : )

Denver Dave
Denver Dave topcommenter

I so totally agree with this review.  Cafe Berlin is totally lame and IMO has been since day one and I should know because I was there for the opening.  Our last experience there was so bad that we have sworn off forever.  Service and food were abysmal.  You're better off at Golden Europe, Chinook (although very pricy), or Helga's.  For the best German in Colorado you need to take a road trip to Colorado Springs to encounter the really wonderful Heidelberg - that's the very best of the best.

FivePoints
FivePoints

That little trivia question and answer to open this (off-the-mark) review make no sense whatsoever. Because, in 1995, most HS seniors were in diapers and Cafe Berlin opened ... they share the year in common how, exactly?

 

You know it's poor writing when you lose a reader in the opening sentence.

ScubaSteve
ScubaSteve topcommenter

I'm German and like the food at Cafe Berlin.  I have no plans to stop going there.

Mmmmmmm....
Mmmmmmm....

This is why we can't have nice things. Please dont change a thing Cafe Berlin. The best Traditionial German food in Colorado. Thanks Gretchen. Your reviews are terrible.

Mantonat
Mantonat topcommenter

 @ian.nissen So Germans never create updated recipes or menu items in Germany? Sounds kinda boring. Last time I was there, I had many innovative dishes based on traditional dishes and classics that nevertheless had modern style and sensibility. It's possible to offer flavors, textures, and ingredients that evoke the past without blindly following tradition. 

 

Then again, it's also possible to create exceptional restaurant food from traditional recipes. If Cafe Berlin does neither, then it deserves the review it was given.

Jon_S
Jon_S

 @Denver Dave

The Old Heidelberg in Springs was phenomenal, and the pastries were unbelievably good. Unfortunately it closed a couple years back, so you can no longer sample the strudel and schnitzel there.

jenna-furrr
jenna-furrr topcommenter

 @FivePoints I graduated from HS in 1995, and I wear diapers now, in 2012. Don't effin judge me.

 
Loading...