Restaurants on Market between 14th and 15th streets have always had the challenge of creating an identity to stand out above the evening chaos on the loudest, busiest block in the city — sexy, infuriating, dangerous. Some, like Dorchester
Social Eatery, combined dining and dancing in one space and offered mostly small plates. Alas, the "eatery" in the name (and the food implied) was axed last year to focus on the nightclub, just as the food vanished at Chloe
across the street. Despite the warning signs, Rhein Haus
, which opened in November in the former Old Chicago space, is trying a different approach — marrying food and entertainment, but without the thumping bass or dance floor.
Inside, Rhein Haus looks like a well-realized Alpine lodge, at least the one that exists in an architect's imagination. (The original Haus in Seattle was even named Von Trapp's, until the real von Trapps — of The Sound of Music
fame — threatened to sue.) The work that's gone into that old workhorse of a sports bar is quite impressive — dark, sexy wood everywhere, two bars, an expansive second floor, general cleanliness, and two bocce courts that are the center of attention. Giant glass boots perch on shelves above the bar, awaiting their destiny in the service of beer chugging.
On the night of my visit, though, a corporate party had cut off access to half the space, and a Blackhawks/Avalanche game crowded LoDo with jerseyed out-of-towners. A thirty-minute wait threatened to push me out of happy hour, which runs from 3 to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily, but I managed to nab a bar stool. Wasn't long before folks in Hawks gear were breathing down our necks, politely shouting for mugs of beer.
Rhein Haus is a bona fide hit in its native Seattle, but this new addition to the family distinguishes itself from its sisters in Washington with a menu designed specifically for Denver, possibly averting the carpetbagger vibe that helped sink L.A. import Wurstküche
. Local guy Eric Hiob (recently of Beatrice & Woodsley
) heads the kitchen, and there are some small but noticeable local nods on the list, like buffalo sausage and a Denver brat with diced jalapeños and cheddar fondue.
Happy hour at the bar gets you a pretty extensive list of German snacks, along with $4 drafts and wines. The lengthy beer roster is a refreshing break from statewide IPA and sour madness. I got a heavy liter of schwarzbier from German brewer Kostritzer; I had a feeling this tasty dark lager would pair well with the starchy, meaty banquet to come.
Good German food really depends on mastery — or at least competency — of the terrific Teutonic trio: sausage, sauerkraut, and salted pretzels. Judging only by what's on the bar menu, Rhein Haus falters to varying degrees on two points. Printed right at the top of the menu, pretzel bites ($3.5) are positioned as a mandatory appetizer. Served in a cast-iron dish with your choice of dip, these nuggets come apart with a satisfying crisp on the bottom. But on two different visits they were tough, riven with puffy veins that denote age and moisture, and the necessary grains of kosher salt were rare. Some tasty obatzda
, a slightly spicy, slightly boozy Bavarian soft cheese dip, did cushion the disappointment, but salted-caramel peanut butter as a condiment didn't live up to its ingredients.
Currywurst (also on the menu, $5) has conquered Europe, but Rhein Haus's chicken schnitzel sliders ($8) could take over as the German fast food of the future. Golden-fried fowl is topped with pickled cabbage, fennel and sage slaw and drippy Dijon dressing. It was a tangy combination, but the burnt pretzel bun was a black mark. I give the same grade to the cheddarwurst ($7, bratwurst and kielbasa also available), beautiful as it is. The sausage cheekily pokes out of a mound of mild sauerkraut, onion and pickled hot peppers, and the weiner is packed with spice and oozing cheese. But if the bun is overdone, the sausage is underdone, pining for the kiss of a good grill.
It's telling that I only had these thoughts after my experiences at Rhein Haus. In the middle of it all, I just thought I was having fun. The late-afternoon crowd is game but not rowdy, and the beer selection covers Germany's greatest hits and deep cuts (Füschen's Altbier is a fine choice, $7). And anyone downtown after 11 p.m. can appreciate a late-night happy hour. Three months is usually not long enough for a kitchen to get personal and culinary chemistry in line, but that hasn't stopped Rhein Haus from being a new favorite on the LoDo scene.
: The Haus has ably taken over for the former Old Chicago as a hockey-fan hangout. There are enough TVs over the bar to keep tabs on the game, but plenty of space to relax before you head to the Pepsi Center.
: We put Rhein Haus's schweinshaxe
($20) on our list of 100 Favorite Dishes, and if you can snag a real table, it's one of the most interesting things on the dinner menu: tender braised pork hocks dusted with seasoning and topped with crispy paprika pork skin, all on a bed of spätzle. You can grab hold of a sausage anywhere in this town, but this could be the Haus's signature plate.