The Heyday of German Restaurants in Washington

One of the oldest continuously-operating restaurants in D.C. is German, the venerable Old Europe on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park, which opened in 1948. Beyond it, Washington boasts relatively few German eateries these days. That wasn't always the case. In the late 19th century, after a wave of German immigrants settled in the area, German restaurants were common and among the city's best. The thriving local beer industry, also dominated by Germans, went hand in glove with the restaurant business. Here are the stories of four of the most successful German eateries from the turn of the last century, all located on or near Pennsylvania Avenue downtown.

Postcard from Engel's Hotel and Restaurant, circa 1900 (author's collection).
One of the best known was Fritz Reuter's. Reuter (1862-1906) had been born in Hanover and came to the U.S. when he was 21 years old. After spending a year in Baltimore, he moved to Washington to work in a saloon. He opened up his own gasthaus (inn and restaurant) in 1889 on the northwest corner of 4½ Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. The building he took over had been a boardinghouse for many years in the early part of the century. Run by a Mrs. Elizabeth Peyton, it had catered to congressmen, Supreme Court justices, and other statesmen, including John Marshall, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun.

Undated advertisement (Author's collection).

The Fritz Reuter restaurant was very flashy for its day, featuring an unusual serpentine-edged bar and a large refrigerated showcase behind the plate glass window on Pennsylvania Avenue. Reuter got into trouble with the local game warden at one point by displaying two bass in the showcase when the fish were not in season. He successfully argued in court that he had no intention of violating the law. According to George Rothwell Brown, Reuter’s was “a memorial to the small hot bird and the large cold bottle, to terrapin, and to the broiled, live lobster.”

In 1902 Reuter offered “table d’hôte” meals (meaning the menu was fixed) for just 50 cents, which he advertised as “the best dinner in the city for the money,” claiming that “a large number of people enjoy it rather than go to the trouble of home cooking.” That same year, Prince Henry of Prussia dined at Reuter’s during his much-ballyhooed state visit to Washington. Sadly, Reuter was plagued with depression, and after being treated for it for over a year, he committed suicide in 1906 by shooting himself in the 2nd floor parlor of his hotel.

Fritz Reuter's (Source: Washington D.C. With Its Points of Interest Illustrated (1894) courtesy of The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.)
The hotel and restaurant were taken over by Henry Achterkirchen (1875-1914), another native of Hanover. Achterkirchen promoted the restaurant extensively, including its famous planked steak à la Fritz Reuter, “a dish fit for a king.” Achterkirchen died in 1914, and later that same year the ruthless District excise board closed Reuter’s. The following year the Ford Motor Company bought the old hotel and the adjoining lot and cleared them to build a new assembly plant and service center, which remained on the site until torn down to make way for the new Canadian Embassy in the 1980s.

Postcard from the early 1910s (author's collection).
On the other side of the Avenue at 3rd Street stood the famous restaurant of Prussian-born Charles Mades (1831-1915), who had immigrated to the US as a small child. A “stout and powerful” man, he got his start in Washington as a sculptor, carving decorations for the U.S. Capitol and other public buildings. He opened his small hotel and restaurant in 1858.

Frequented by soldiers during the Civil War, the popularity of Mades’ restaurant grew in the post-war years, and it was frequently on the short list of fine restaurants frequented by presidents, Supreme Court justices, and members of Congress. One of its unique curiosities was a frog pond in the back yard; customers were invited to select their dinners from it. Of course, you could get more than just frog legs. “Chicken dinners were the attraction at Mades,” The Washington Post declared in a 1921 reminiscence.

Mades' Hotel and Restaurant, c. 1910 (author's collection).
As Charles Mades grew older, he delegated much of the day-to-day operations of the restaurant and hotel to his sons. Journalist Buck Bryant wrote in the Post in 1929 that he would sit for hours every day by a window looking out on 3rd Street and would feed the birds that came over from the Botanic Garden. “While distinguished members of Congress and well-known newspaper men made merry at the tables or the counter, he would whistle for the blue jays, the mockers, the catbirds and other feathered friends who appreciated his generosity.”

Mades’ closed in 1925, long past its heyday, and all its furnishings were auctioned off to pay debts. The building burned down in 1931, just as the entire south side of Pennsylvania Avenue was being cleared for construction of the Federal Triangle office buildings.

A few blocks further east another prominent German-born hotelier and restaurateur set up shop. William A. Engel (1865-1948), a native of Bühne, came to America as a teenager, starting off in Baltimore and then moving to Rosslyn, Virginia, where he found employment as foreman of the Portner Brewing Company plant. In 1888 he moved into the city to work at the Pabst Brewing Company's local bottling plant, where he was promoted to manager in 1892. Around 1898 he struck out on his own, opening Engel's Hotel and Restaurant at New Jersey Avenue and C Street NW, across the street from the B and O Railroad Depot.

Engel's was popular both with locals and travelers, and was known as much for its drink as for its food. In a time when the major breweries controlled local bars, Engel's became a Pabst outlet, offering stiff competition to local breweries. A 1901 advertisement noted that Engel's also served Munich Hofbräu and other imported beers on draught, and by 1907 it was the exclusive D.C. seller of "Cloister Beer." Foodwise, Engel's offered a businessman's lunch for 25 cents and was noted for its delicious one-pound steaks, which cost a dollar. Buck Bryant's 1929 reminiscence of old-time Washington restaurants included a fond remembrance of Engel's. "That fellow Engel had a way of serving herring that beat the world," Bryant recalled.

Engel's restaurant on E Street, after the move (author's collection).

In 1911, Engel's was part of a several blocks of buildings that were condemned and taken over by the federal government to create the park-like plaza between the Capitol building and Union Station. William Engel gave up the hotel side of his business but moved Engel's restaurant to 1335 E Street NW, along a block affectionately known as Rum Row. There his eatery, which included an adjacent bowling alley, gained renewed popularity.

Gerstenberg's and Engel's flank the Washington Post building in this undated photo (Source: Library of Congress).
Rum Row, the stretch of E Street between Thirteenth and Fourteenth Streets, was home to various bohemian restaurants and saloons. As the name suggests, it was a place for drinking—and naturally an assortment of other vices, particularly gambling. Originally a line of federal town houses housing early residents and professionals, Rum Row changed character dramatically during the Civil War, when soldiers swarmed the streets looking for cheap entertainment. Previously respectable homes and commercial establishments were replaced with saloons and gambling joints. After the war, the row became less notorious but was still a focal point for eating and drinking. Its central location made it the rendezvous for all elements of society. “On the row a man met and mingled with the elite, the bon-ton, the busy man-about-town, the Bohemian, the poet laureate, the soldier of fortune, and everything but the bootlegger, a type that at that date had not come into existence,” wrote The Washington Post in 1921.

In this circa 1908 postcard view, Gerstenberg's is on the far left,  Engel's is the small white building at center left, and Shoomaker's is the red building next to it (author's collection).
When Engel's moved to Rum Row, there were already two other establishments with German-American roots, Shoomaker's and Gerstenberg's. Shoomaker’s (“Shoo’s”) was founded by Maj. William Shoomaker (1833-1883) and his partner Otto Herzog around the time of the Civil War and continued in business for nearly 60 years. After emigrating from Germany, Shoomaker served as a sutler in the Union Army before going into business with Herzog in Washington. After Shoomaker’s death the saloon was bought by Col. Joseph Rickey (1842-1903) and run by George Williamson (1849-1915), who was instrumental in cementing its popularity. Shoo’s is perhaps best remembered today as the place where the gin rickey was invented one hot summer day in the 1880s. The full, rollicking story of Shoo's is told in local author Garrett Peck's engaging new book Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C., which is highly recommended.

Gerstenberg’s, the other German restaurant, had opened in 1887 in a former barroom a few doors away. The proprietor of this resort, Ernst Gerstenberg, emigrated from Germany in 1883 when he was twenty-eight years old, around the same time he married his wife, Augusta. It was Frau Gerstenberg’s culinary skills that made the food at his restaurant so tasty. One of her most celebrated dishes was a hasenpfeffer (rabbit stew), but she was also noted for her wiener schnitzel, veal chops, sour beef and German pancakes, all distributed to waiters from a little window in the back of the dining room.

Caricature of Ernst Gerstenberg with his dog Bismark (Source: The Washington Herald,  Dec. 17, 1911).
While Mrs. Gerstenberg was ensuring that the guests were all served with hearty German fare, Mr. Gerstenberg, a large and formidable-looking man, would tend to other matters, such as the beer. He was famous for his homemade pilsner, and in time his establishment became known among locals as the “University of Gerstenberg,” perhaps because it seemed like a student beer hall in old Heidelberg. Those who demonstrated sufficient beer-drinking prowess were said to have graduated from the university, with Gerstenberg himself undoubtedly conferring the degrees. Of the beer drinking at Gerstenberg's George Rothwell Brown tells the following story:
One day Mine Host Ernst, in a heated argument with a customer, bet his friend that one of the bar boys could drink a gallon of beer without pausing for breath. The wager was posted, and Herr Gerstenberg looked about for the boy, who had been there but a moment before. Presently he was seen, coming up from the cellar. “It’s all right, boss,” he said in a hoarse whisper, “go ahead and make the bet. I’ve just been down to see if I could do it.”
Postcard from Gerstenberg's (author's collection). Laura was another of Gerstenberg's beloved dogs.

The advent of Prohibition spelled doom for many of the city's restaurants. The three German Rum Row eateries all closed in 1917 and 1918, with Engel and Gerstenberg both going into retirement. The free-flowing beer, delicious steaks, and hasenpfeffer all vanished. Many Washingtonians would remember the Engel name not for William and his restaurant but for his athlete son, Joe Engel (1893-1969), who was a pitcher for the Washington Senators from 1912 to 1915 and later served very successfully as a scout for the team.

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Parts of this article previously appeared in Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats, published by The History Press in 2013. Additional sources included: George Rothwell Brown, Washington, D.C.: A Not Too Serious History (1930); Garrett Peck, Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, D.C. (2014); Washington D.C. With Its Points of Interest Illustrated (1894), and numerous newspaper articles.

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