By Debra Cornwell
There is no bad time or wrong season to eat German food. However, during fall and winter, German cuisine particularly shines. It is hearty, warming, and comforting with a bit of zing. For 24 years and against all manner of tides in the ebb and flow of downtown Hagerstown economics, Schmankerl Stube is the little restaurant that could.
Founded in 1988 by Charles Sekula, Schmankerl Stube has anchored the corner of South Potomac and Antietam Streets since that time. The Stube is actually not a little restaurant--it seats 100 inside, 30 for streetside cafe dining and 70 in the rear biergarten (outdoor patio.) Originally from Munich, Sekula immigrated to Ohio in the late1960's to work on power line construction.
The power lines came through Hagerstown, and Sekula stayed, eventually working at Mack Truck. Sekula then followed his dream to open a restaurant so, "I could share, with the community and beyond, the authentic Bavarian cuisine and hospitality with which I had grown up."
In 1997, Sekula placed a want ad in a German hotel/restaurant trade magazine for a chef. Chef Dieter Blosel answered the call, but the worker documentation process took two years before Blosel set foot on American soil and in the Stube's kitchen. Since Sekula's children has pursued other careers, he eventually made arrangements to sell the Stube to Blosel. The seamless, essentially invisible, transfer keeps Sekula in the front of the house to greet his longtime fans and to introduce newcomers to the best of Bavarian cuisine while Blosel runs the rest of the operation. Blosel's extensive training includes an apprenticeship with a pastry chef and cooking jobs in Switzerland, Austria, and even on a cruise ship.
Blosel reveals that Sekula could have yet another "act" left--that of a singer. "Sekula really sings well. I remember on the Sunday after September 11, 2001, we had a moment of silence in downtown Hagerstown followed by the Star Spangled Banner. You never heard anything like it. People were very moved by his voice."
Blosel says one of the things that helped the restaurant through the 2008 economic downturn is the fact that the Stube is a destination restaurant, not a daily eatery. "We recently had several couples from Philadelphia make an overnight trip to eat here. That is the sort of thing we see. We draw customers from Baltimore and Washington and from Pittsburgh and beyond," he says. Blosel recalls that, like the dishes he serves, Sekula built the restaurant from scratch and had a tough go of it in the beginning. "Since the economy tanked a few years ago, I am seeing family diners returning, but we still have a way to go."
Although Sekula is from Munich and Blosel is from Nuremberg, the Bavarian cuisine is not limited to dishes local to those cities. Blosel explains, "Bavarian cuisine is very localized, but we have created a menu representative of the entire region by selecting what we think are the best preparations. We have also found that our diners want their favorites year round so we do not vary our menu by season. We offer consistency, and our customers appreciate that."
Another note of consistency is the fact that the Stube doesn't close shop on slow days and can be counted on to open in bad weather. "Sekula believes that if we say we are going to be open on certain hours and days, then we keep that promise. We are closed on Thanksgiving Day, but if Christmas falls on a Friday or Saturday, we will be open. Our busiest days are Mother's Day, Father's Day, and when there are shows at the Maryland Theater. Our New Year's Eve Dinner is also popular." Blosel says.
Diners enjoy homemade Liptauer kase (cheese) with German rye bread while waiting for their madeto- order entrees. The whipped cheese spread is a light, creamy savory alternative to butter. Blosel also makes his own quark cheese- -a fresh, creamy, almost curd-like cheese. The mustards offered include a traditional dijon plus Blosel's homemade sweet and spicy mustard--a fabulous condiment with the sausages or the pork shank.
The fork-tender sauerbraten is one of the Stube's most popular dishes. Marinated beef in spices and served in gravy, the dish is accompanied by whipped potatoes at lunch and by a bread dumpling at dinner. The delightful whipped potatoes include chives, but there is a hint of another flavor. See if you can guess what it is when you order a dish with whipped potatoes on your visit to the Stube!
The bone-in pork shank is a monumental dish. Falling off the bone, the meat cooks for four hours before being served; therefore, diners must order it 24 hours in advance. I recommend ordering it when you make your dinner reservation. Served with both appleflavored red cabbage and sauerkraut plus a grilled bread dumpling, this dish doesn't miss a beat with abundant Bavarian goodness. Here's a hint: Chef Dieter makes a few of the local Mennonite-supplied pork shanks on Wednesdays--first come, first served.
I also sampled spaetzle with mushroom gravy. Resembling scrambled eggs in appearance, these light fluffy noodles were the perfect delivery mode for the rich earthy gravy. I have to wonder if kase spaetzle would be a German mac and cheese?
Blosel admits he loves to make desserts and personally does so at the Stube. The daily choices are simply divine. I sampled the Munich cake--essentially a baked-fromscratch yellow cake filled with a vanilla creme and topped with a thin layer of Swiss chocolate. The cake is dessert perfection, satisfying the sweet tooth without being overly sweet.
With starched white table cloths, wait staff in Bavarian attire, and ornate Bavarian wine glasses, the restaurant might be construed as formal, but fortunately great food and great service do not require formal attire--casual dining is the word. "To someone who has never tasted Bavarian cuisine or visited Schmankerl Stube, then I say, "Try it'" suggests Blosel. "We use quality ingredients in simple preparations and have a dedicated, low-turnover service staff, some of whom have been here over 20 years. We work to please our customer."
German draft beers are served in traditional steins, and a full bar is available. It is also interesting to note that Hagerstown's sister city since 1952 is Wesel, North-Rhine, Westphalia, Germany.
P.S. Schmankerl Stube means Bavarian Specialty Room!