There’s a New Central European Bar in Town—and it’s not Radegast Hall

There’s a new bar with a long list of schnapps, homemade bratwurst, and serious gastfreundlichkeit on the menu, and it’s not Radegast Hall. Unlike its much-buzzed-about Czech relative in Williamsburg,
Cafe Katja (79 Orchard Street, between Broome and Grand) debuted under the radar on the Lower East Side last month with modest class. You might walk past what appears to be a cold, pricey lounge from the sidewalk, but inside, the place feels rather like a traditional Central European inn in which the owners mingle with a spirited crowd over aromatic drinks and inexpensive, hearty fare. In this overly stylish neighborhood where many go to discover their Euro heritage through food and drink, Cafe Katja perfectly bridges the old and new worlds of the LES.

Located on the ground floor of a former tenement, the cafe’s layout resembles a cozy New York City apartment, materials like brick and hardwood the charming trade-off for lack of size. Mirrors along one wall, underlined by a long wooden counter, give the illusion of space. On the opposite wall, exposed brick is the backdrop to leather banquettes and a handful of tables. Below, a hardwood floor; above, a painted old tin ceiling. For space maximization, high shelves support handmade pottery and vats of infused vodkas, and a portable metal rack welded by a local artisan holds the glassware with logos to match the six draft beers (from $3).

There are also 10 bottles of lagers, pilsners, and weisses (from $5), many rare for these parts. Rarer still are the schnapps, which come from honey, walnuts, or pine cones (from $6). The latter, zirbenz, gives an earthy bite to a gin martini. The bar uses natural, fragrant elements like elderflower, thyme, ginger, and violets to induce fantasies of running over hills, alive with the taste of Alp-inspired cocktails ($9 each). The Lower East Cider is by far the most inventive mixture, made with bisongrass vodka, fresh pressed cider, and, as symbol of LES flavor, Dr. Brown’s cel-ray soda. There is also a long list of German and Austrian wines (from $6.50); plans to carry Slovenian and Hungarian wines are in the works.

Forget buffalo wings: With two respected chefs at the helm—one a native Austrian and the other a native New Yorker who lives in the neighborhood—Cafe Katja has a refined take on bar snacks. Co-owners Erwin Schrottner and Andrew Chase offer homemade pickles, smoked trout ($8), pretzels ($2), and beef goulash ($16), the Austro-Hungarian and New York Jewish flavors authentic to diners from either end of the diaspora. Other salty and satisfying drunk-food options include a cured meat plate ($14), landjaeger (dried sausage, $6), and homemade bratwurst with sauerkraut ($7). Food is served until 11 p.m., but like true wirts, the owners won’t let anyone starve. On a recent night, as the hour neared 3 a.m., Chase and his wife Darinka Novitovic, the iconic hostess of Florent for the past 21 years and a part-time manager here, presided warmly like parents over their trusting patrons, repeatedly asking, “Are you hungry? Can I get you something?” A fortysomething Austrian gentleman, who’d been conversing vigorously in his native tongue with a German friend, hailed the chefs. “I’ve been here for five hours!” he boomed, raising his glass with one hand and digging into his linzer torte with the other. “I’m not hungry, I’m not thirsty, and I’m still consuming!”

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