The Red Lion Tavern in Silver Lake was kitschy long before being kitschy became a hallmark of counterculture cool. The venerable German beer garden on Glendale Boulevard, which has always been earnest about its over-the-top Bavarian-themed decor and dirndl-clad bartenders, is now situated across the street from one of hipsterdom's most self-consciously ironic and aggressively kitschy bars, the Cha Cha Lounge.
This faded Frau of Silver Lake was cool long before a pilgrimage of the young and tragically hip led to a steady gentrification process that last fall resulted in Forbes magazine dubbing Silver Lake "America's Hippest Hipster Neighborhood." Now, Friday and Saturday nights see dueling lines at both the Cha Cha and the Lion (as its devoted cast of regulars call it).
A beer garden for the new millennium: The biggest change since Backen's 2003 death, which triggered another change in ownership, is that men now work the floor and the bar. Prior to that, men were found only in the kitchen (which is likely why in the early '00s Maxim magazine named the Red Lion one of L.A.'s best bars). Old-school cash registers were also replaced, and a vegan bratwurst sausage was introduced on the menu. Some of the older, more seasoned customers saw these changes as one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (soy sausage?!), but they mostly have been accepted as necessary updates for the 21st century.
Hearty eatin': The Red Lion is built on excess. Sausage platters come laden with three types — Bockwurst, knackwurst and bratwurst — as well as a healthy scoop of spicy German mustard and a pile of pickles; the Schweinebraten (roast pork loin) comes with two or three pancake-sized slices of tender meat buried in savory gravy; and the boiled Eisbein (ham hock) is a giant, trembling mass of pink meat shot through with a gleaming white bone and served speared with a serrated knife. These are not meals to be undertaken lightly, which is why most diners at the Red Lion look as if they've just climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro when they are done eating.
Epic drinkin': Panting and red-faced from the exertion of it all, those who dine at the Red Lion inevitably call for more beer. Revelers often order 2-liter boots of beer (shaped like actual boots) and wooden saws of shots (you buy six and get the seventh for free). A crisp, cold Warsteiner Pilsener, perhaps, or for those with more daring tendencies, a deadly, dark Spaten Optimator, which has an ABV of 7.2 %. At the end of the night, those in the know order a tiny bottle of Underberg, a bitter digestif designed to soothe overextended stomachs with a proprietary mix of magical herbs.
If that doesn't sound like a recipe for fun, you can always order the soy sausage.
"This German Gasthaus is a longtime Silver Lake fixture that features German cuisine and waitresses decked out in authentic Old World attire. The beer garden on the back patio is a wonderful place to sample the bar's wide selection of European beers, and the restaurant specializes in meaty German fare. The place can get crowded on weekends, especially when there's live entertainment and music."
"Decorated in a dark, Tudor-styled motif with stained-glass windows and Oktoberfest-themed decor, this bar is a little bit of Bavaria in L.A. Head to the main room downstairs if you're looking for a mellow, German atmosphere. A little too mellow? Go upstairs for a merrier vibe. Walk into the beer garden in a bad mood and the friendly service and atmosphere is guaranteed to turn your mood festive."
"All half-timbers, dark lights and Ritterbrau on tap, Red Lion is sort of a Disneyland version of Germany at the eastern edge of the Silver Lake district, the kind of place where beer is served in boots, the waitresses wear peasant dresses tight-fitting enough to give Helmut Newton night sweats, and your dinner, if you sit in the upstairs dining room, makes its way from the kitchen in a dumbwaiter that pulleys the heavy, basic German food into a kind of fragrant armoire. (It's enough to make a fellow respect the wonders of high technology: a private elevator for schweinenbraten.)
Squadrons of beer steins, most of them for sale, are displayed behind glass on the walls. In the men's room, the week's California Staats-Zeitung is strategically mounted behind plexiglass for convenient stand-up reading. Sometimes there's an accordion player (though come to think of it, I haven't seen him lately) who will play "Eine Polische Madchen" for a small donation. More often, a guy bangs out stuff like "Bette Davis Eyes" on a small but intensively programmed synthesizer, sometimes accompanying himself on alto sax.
Early in the evening, there's usually a scattering of native Germans at the bar, though lately they've been outnumbered by arty Silver Lake dudes and the kind of shaggy music-scene guys who always know where to find the best suds in any neighborhood. The Red Lion serves Bitburger on tap, and the various shades of Ritterbrau, but the beer to get is the relatively uncommon Spaten Weissbier, tart as limeade, refreshing with a slice of lemon on a hot summer night.
Open late, populated but rarely overcrowded, as smoker-friendly as any restaurant can be in these neo-Prohibitionist days, Red Lion may not be the most refined restaurant in Los Angeles, but it has always been a good place for a beer and a wurst: knackwurst, bratwurst, weisswurst, bockwurst, German-style wieners, also the tasty smoked pork chops called Kassler rippchen and the jiggly pork hock called eisbein. (Avoid the turkey bratwurst, which tends to be kind of dry.)
Leberkase, veal loaf, is more or less like a flat, soft sausage without the skin, about the size and thickness of a slice of Wonder Bread, with a smack of garlic and smoke that is astonishingly like that of a Dodger dog, garnished with an egg hard-fried to a beef-jerky chewiness for contrast. Rouladen can be sort of unspectacular, gravy-sodden (though bloodless) sliced beef wrapped around some onions. Red Lion's farmer's plate includes a sausage stuffed with a sweetly seasoned mixture of blood; another with something like hot, loose liverwurst; a slab of bacon cut thick as a steak. Like almost everything here, the farmer's plate comes with a potato, in this case boiled rather than made into sweet-tart German potato salad or mashed, and with a mound of hot, mellow sauerkraut. The farmer's plate's not bad, but it would seem to require 14 hours of hard manual labor to metabolize.
The sausage platter is kind of spectacular-looking-a giant plate covered with bratwurst and knackwurst, cut into chunks, bristling with dozens of the kind of fancy cellophane-tufted toothpicks that classy coffee shops use to fasten your BLT. It's sort of a minimal plate really, all meat and maybe a pickle slice or two, and may be the polar opposite of a vegetarian plate. (Vegetarians, of course, will find little here that doesn't have at least a lashing of bacon fat for ballast.)
But oddly enough in this palace of meat, the best dish may be the fish dish called rollmops: cool, silvery slabs of marinated herring, cleanly fishy, so heavily vinegared you can choke a little on the fumes if you take too big a first bite. The herring comes with a great pile of something close to the perfect potatoes, fried crisp in bacon grease and dotted with wilted onions, and the platter may be just the sort of occasion for which liter-size beer mugs were invented. "
"A hidden veteran of the Silver Lake circuit, this kitschy, over-the-top German tavern -- complete with dirndl-clad waitresses -- is where neighborhood hipsters mingle with cranky, working-class German expats. The place serves hearty half-liters of Warsteiner, Becks, and Bitburger, but braver souls -- with bottomless bladders -- can take on a 1.5-liter boot. The astonishingly good food offerings include schnitzel, bratwurst, and potato pancakes."
"An eccentric little tavern-restaurant off the beaten track, this is the place to go for a good selection of German beers on tap and an even better selection of bratwurst, knockwurst, liverwurst, leberkase (veal loaf), kasslerrippchen (pork chops) and other authentic, beer-friendly German specialties. It's always Oktoberfest at the Red Lion, with its timbered walls, extensive collection of beer steins, waitresses in traditional garb, and festive air."