A couple of years ago it would have been inconceivable to have a German-themed restaurant in London: somehow, our WWII past and sauerkraut-infused present did not make for a good business idea. But times have changed, beer festivals and Christmas markets be thanked, to the point that there are now a small handful of German restaurants in the capital. Besides the unashamedly sausage-based bratwurst joints Kurz&Lang and Herman ze German, the most recent addition is the rather more upmarket German Gymnasium, placed conveniently between King’s Cross and St Pancras Stations.
The location – the first purpose-built gymnasium in England, apparently, built for gymnastics-crazy German immigrants in the 19th century – makes for a stunning backdrop: the beautifully constructed ceilings alone make it worth a visit. The bar or Grand Café occupies the ground floor, whereas the more upmarket restaurant is on the gallery that runs around the glorious building.
Having opted for the slightly more affordable Grand Café, we were led to table at the side of the building, away from the great hall. As all the other tables around us sported small children, I have to assume this was no coincidence – it certainly made us feel much less apprehensive about dining out with our not always impeccably behaved offspring.
The staff were helpful and the menu just on the right side of German: heavy on soups and sausages, with a range of salads and vegetable dishes for the uninitiated. Although the selection of German beers could have been a little more extensive, I was impressed by the wine list: not only did it include a range of German wines beyond the ubiquitous Spätlese, it even boasted a red from my home valley, which we duly ordered.
As for the food, we stuck to the classics: a hearty goulash soup, Black Forest ham with an amazing aniseed-infused cauliflower pickle, and one of my favourites: earthy lamb’s lettuce with fried bacon. The kids, however, opted for Schnitzel: chicken Schnitzel for starters, followed by one rather prohibitively pricey veal Schnitzel. Despite the hefty price tag, the veal Schnitzel did not disappoint: flattened to the size of an elephant’s ear, the thin coat of breadcrumbs covered the tender meat ever so lightly, throwing the required bubbles. Nevertheless, more than half of it did double up as next day’s packed lunch.
The calf’s liver, Berlin style, and Schinkenknacker sausages were delicious, the latter served on a bed of Sauerkraut. Tick. My Weißwurst, however, did not survive the culture shock unscathed: served – as it should be – in a bowl of hot water, the waitress insisted on placing the sausages onto my plate and vanished with the bowl. Clearly the British obsession with Health and Safety does not allow for such high-risk practices as eating Weißwurst. My dessert of Rote Grütze, on the other hand, caused no alarm: the fruit compote had just the right consistency you’d expect from this specialty from Hamburg and the acidity was perfectly balanced by creamy vanilla custard.
All in all the food was as I would have expected it in a similar restaurant in Germany, ‘gutbürgerliche Küche,’ the cuisine of the middle-class: traditional dishes from various regions, expertly prepared and served. At roughly £40 a head excluding drinks, the German Gymnasium is not cheap, especially in comparison to similar restaurants in Germany. But the quality of the ingredients, the beautiful setting and the location in central London make it well worth a visit.
If you’re looking for a classy bar near King’s Cross, or if you’ve always wondered what Germans eat between beer festivals, the German Gymnasium provides you with a good selection. Just don’t expect a beer garden atmosphere: the only thing that jars with the understated elegance of the interior are the garishly green emergency exit signs on the walls. As a German, I do wonder why I would need to be told about an emergency exit when I am looking out of it, but I am clearly not seeing eye-to-eye with British Health and Safety regulations. As a final nod towards national stereotypes, the German Gymnasium limits the required oompa-oompa music to the bathroom. It just would not have been the same without it.
1 King’s Boulevard
London N1C 4BU