Dining » Restaurant Reviews

Kraut Pleaser

The Berliner Bear gives us a warm fuzzy feeling.


German restaurants have never exactly been abundant here, despite the city's historically large German-American population. And they've decreased in popularity over the past two decades, even as the city has seen a proliferation of Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and French restaurants. Changing culinary tastes obviously have a lot to do with this, especially given that the traditional vision of a German meal -- a plate full of bratwurst, dumplings, marinated red cabbage and hot potato salad -- sounds not only miserably heavy but so 19th century.

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."

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