In the antebellum period, the Union Hill neighborhood just north and west of Church Hill was home to German immigrants and free blacks. It was a predominantly working-class neighborhood with an irregular street grid and distinct character. I like to think that in addition to the German-language newspapers of the day, there were a few German restaurants, serving food and nostalgia from the homeland.
In Richmond, German food is as scarce as a German newspaper. But Metzger Bar and Butchery recently stepped in to fill the void, bringing German-inspired cuisine back to Union Hill for dinner and weekend brunch. The décor lives up to the name — Metzger is a German surname meaning butcher — and the concrete floor, chunky wood-block tables and tile walls all suggest a butcher’s shop, albeit a cleaned up and classy one that you’d want to linger in.
I acknowledge a bias for German food and culture. My best friends in graduate school were German, my wife lived in Bavaria for years, and I’m planning my fifth trip there this fall. But I have company — Americans have enthusiastically adopted German food as their own. There are cured meats like Black Forest ham and all manner of sausages along with pretzels, sauerkraut, lager … the list goes on.
A trio of experienced food-business veterans teamed up for this venture: Brittany Anderson, most recently found cooking for the Roosevelt, Brad Hemp, co-founder of SausageCraft, and longtime butcher Nathan Conway, who created Relay Food’s meat section and worked at the venerable Yellow Umbrella.
Together, they bring their considerable experience to bear for Metzger, choosing the German theme to match the neighborhood’s history. They intend to bring both restaurant and retail to this underserved neighborhood, offering a curated selection of meat, cheese and wine during the day, and a well-prepared, well-executed menu for dinner and weekend brunch.
The menu is divided into klassiker (classics), as well as small and large plates that showcase German influence on a wide array of mostly nontraditional dishes.
The classics range from small appetizers, like the excellent pickled eggs ($5) served with a mayonnaise-and-mustard sauce, to the hearty schnitzel-of-the day entrée ($15). When I first try the schnitzel, it’s a pork cutlet served with vinegary red cabbage and potatoes, and through three visits it never changes. It’s good enough that I still remain curious what other twists on that dish the kitchen could cook up. Also in the classics section, the Bavarian specialty weisswurst (literally white sausage and misspelled on the menu as weissewurst, $9), isn’t what I’d expect to find in Germany, but nevertheless is a delicious, mild, delicately spiced and smooth-textured sausage.
Options beyond the classics show just how talented the kitchen is. The large-plate chicken ($17), beer-brined and juicy, is nicely charred and bursting with flavor. On another visit I try the daily special, maultasche ($18), ravioli stuffed with blue crab, topped with corn cut from the cob, green beans and lima beans in a light cream sauce. The flavors balance beautifully, and my only disappointment is the small portion.
The corned beef hash ($12) served at brunch comes with unusually large cubes of corned beef, duck-fat-cooked potatoes, a poached egg and fried shallots. A satisfying twist on the original, the rich flavors meld together perfectly. The frühstück brett (breakfast board, $10), recreates my favorite German breakfast: a soft-boiled egg, bread, melt-in-your-mouth cured meats, cheese, mustard, apple butter and fruit. Where else in Richmond can you get mustard, meat and cheese for breakfast?
For dessert, the staff patiently accommodates my wife’s gluten-free needs, providing an off-menu ice-cream dish, as well as my picky request for a cheese plate. I’m served Bayley Hazen Blue, a cheese so good I ask the waitress to spell the name so I can write it down and find it later. The accompanying honeycomb (real honeycomb) and sugared almonds add sweetness and texture to the pungent cheese — altogether a fitting end to a European meal.
Alcohol choices, like the food, stay close to the restaurant’s continental inspiration, with digestifs including herbal liqueurs and a sweet dessert Riesling. Beers mostly are German-themed, with both classics and inventive twists on German standards by American breweries thrown in for good measure.
Minor tweaks could put Metzger in contention for one of the best restaurants in town. My problems are minor: a little more salt for the schnitzel, a minute longer cooking time for the soft-boiled egg so the whites are solid, a bit more education for the servers, including assistance with pronunciation. It easily competes with its nearby heavyweight neighbors in Church Hill and stands to put Union Hill on the culinary map.
Metzger Bar and Butchery
Retail hours: Tues.-Sun. 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Restaurant hours: Tues.-Sun. 5-11 p.m., Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
801 N. 23rd St.