After four months of renovation and a soft opening leading into limited dinner service last week, Financial District institution Schroeder’s is back in full swing.
With the retirement of Jana and Stefan Filipcik at the end of 2013, new owners Jan Wiginton and Andy Chun have bravely shouldered the daunting task of reworking a classic, in this case a 120 year-old German beer hall—the oldest and largest of its kind on the West Coast.
With an expert team, including Chef Manfred Wrembel (Plum, Incanto), mixologist Claire Jane Hunter (Rye, Future) and General Manager Scott Carr (Boulevard, Hardier), Schroeder’s already seems poised to carry the restaurant’s legacy well into the future.
Playing up the natural, rustic atmosphere, the redesign kept the original Herman Richter murals, wood bar and antique beer steins, but partitioned the 5,000-square-foot space into a beer hall with communal tables at the front, more intimate restaurant-style tables at the rear and a private dining room.
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On a recent afternoon, chef Wrembel took a break from preparing for dinner service to join us at the sun-drenched bar and talk about the flavors of his childhood, goals for the future and, of course, the schnitzel he hopes everyone will love.
Although Wrembel is a born and raised Californian, he’s also, as his name suggests, of German descent.
“There was always something going on in the kitchen,” he says. “Usually [my mom] would make potato pancakes with applesauce and pork chop, or schnitzel and applesauce. That has definitely had an effect on the style of what I do. No matter what, there’s always Germanic flavors in there.”
Prior to joining the Schroeder’s team, Wrembel made an impression on the culinary community with stints at Incanto and Plum. And while he is no stranger to revamping a menu, he knows when to hold back and not just go for the shock value.
“It’s all about the nice mix of modern aesthetic to cuisine but still respecting the roots of it,” he says, momentarily waxing philosophic about the tendency of new chefs to try to jump start their careers by becoming the next Ferran Adria without dedicating the time to master fundamentals.
Acknowledging that he’s in a new kitchen with a new team (“Literally, the soft opening was the first time I even got into the kitchen upstairs”), Wrembel is content with the current menu but looks forward to building on it in the coming months.
“What we’re doing here is not changing German food but bringing it into the more California-oriented produce side of things,” he says. “We’re giving it a dining aesthetic. Everyone has a preconception of what German food is, but unfortunately it’s usually an American version gone horribly wrong.”
If there is one thing Wrembel is adamant about, it’s creating as many menu items as possible in-house; already his team is churning out blood sausage, bratwurst, sauerkraut and other pickled vegetables, and prior to our meeting he was experimenting with a few terrines. And even for not-so-adventurous eaters, his enthusiasm when talking about fermentation and experimentation is infectious.
“It hasn’t really sunk in,” he says of the magnitude of taking over such an iconic San Francisco restaurant.
“I relate it to having a kid. Everyone’s always like, ‘Are you ready?’ But are you ever ready? No. You either do a good job, or next thing you know your kid’s a doper on the street. I hope my schnitzel is as addictive as crack, but without all the negative side effects.”
In previous eras, Schroeder’s was somewhat of a happy hour destination for Financial District crowd, and while Wrembel’s bar menu features savory bites that pair well with the extensive beer list, it seems that free meatballs is not a tradition he’s particularly looking to continue.
“I’ve always lived by the motto, ‘If anything’s good it’s worth charging for,’” he says.
And besides, “I always question when you get free food at places—why is this free? If it’s a Monday is it because it’s from Friday?”
Okay chef, we see your point.
Scenes from Schroeder’s after its reopening: