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Beach, beer and a bite of Europe

Times Staff Writer

Here’s where I want to be at about 4 o’clock on any sunny afternoon this month: sitting at a beachfront cafe, drinking a great beer, eating some interesting food, surrounded by people who’ve traveled from all over the world to get to this spot and are pleased as punch to be here.

In other words, at On the Waterfront Cafe on the Venice boardwalk.

I first noticed the place from the seat of a rented bike. I was headed south on the beach bike path, hot, thirsty and elated with sunshine and exercise.

The Waterfront’s bright yellow Bitburger awnings caught my eye. Dismounting and walking the bike to get a closer look, I saw a sprawling joint opening cheerily out onto the boardwalk near Rose Avenue. At many of the crowded tables, folks were sipping cloudy, unfiltered brew -- weiss beer, I guessed, in tall glasses bearing the logo of Erdinger, a German brewery.

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Note to self: Something good on tap -- I will return.

When I do, on another weekend afternoon with some friends, I see that bike riders in the know walk their wheels through the Waterfront’s front dining room and park on the back patio.

The place is packed -- a passel of bladers, a gaggle of senior joggers, happy, brightly dressed families and couples have taken over every table. There’s a grill in the side-patio “beer garden,” but we grab a spot inside along a sunny open-air corridor of windows where everyone has a view of the boardwalk action.

So far, it seems like just another beach cafe, but then we notice the Swiss flag outside and a few photos and artifacts of that country. Sure enough, the menu lists several “Swiss specials” including bundnerteller (air-dried beef and cheese), a bratwurst and rosti plate (rosti being the beloved Swiss potato dish often compared to hash browns) and raclette (cheese served melted onto potatoes). Owners Stefan and Susi Bachofner Binder are from Switzerland, and Stefan, who’s often at the restaurant, is a real beer aficionado.

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Uncommon fare

Now, you can go to On the Waterfront Cafe and order a quesadilla or a garden burger or chips and salsa or even samosas and salsa. And if you’re one of the many European tourists who have been enjoying the exchange rate as you browse the stalls of sunglasses and T-shirts, why not? The Waterfront versions are a respectable representation of L.A. multi-culti beach food.

You can also order an Anchor Steam on tap here or a bottle of Dos Equis Amber. Fine.

But for my money, the reason to sit at the Waterfront’s tables instead of at the other nearby boardwalk cafes is to take advantage of the less-common opportunity to sip that Erdinger Weizenbier, or the Kostritzer Black Beer or Bitburger Premium (a Pilsener) -- all available on tap. And whether you want a snack or a hearty lunch or homey dinner, the Swiss specials are the way to go. They’re fresh and deftly made favorites of a cuisine we don’t see much of here.

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One afternoon, when my companion orders an Erdinger, I opt for a Newcastle Brown Ale (also on tap); it’s great for sipping with the bundnerteller appetizer plate. Rosettes of paper-thin slices of bundnerfleisch, the delicate, pungent cousin to prosciutto made in Switzerland’s Graubunden region (Remember Heidi’s grandfather? He practically lived on the stuff) are arranged on a plate with equally thin slices of “monk’s head” cheese (tete de moine). Served with a basket of bread, the bundnerfleisch is the real thing, hard to get in Southern California and a good, if not luxe, example. The distinctive cheese, which, like the meat, has just a touch of sharpness, pairs perfectly with it.

A more substantial dish, great for lunch or supper (allowing room for an accompanying beer) is the curry rosti, a medley of chicken and fruit in a mild curry sauce spooned onto a perfectly made rosti, a pancake of shredded potatoes, fried gloriously golden and crisp outside, tender and white inside. Like another dish here, Zurcher gschnatzlets, chicken in mushroom sauce with rosti, it’s inspired by a Zurich dish of veal in cream sauce. The Waterfront’s lightened-up versions suit the setting and the season.

Wurst-chas salat (sausage-cheese salad) is an acquired taste: cut-up cervelat sausage (a pork sausage similar to unsliced bologna), Emmenthal cheese, onions and pickles mixed and dressed with a hearty mustard dressing. Try sharing it as an appetizer; a full order is a daunting pile of protein for the uninitiated.

Unfortunately, though breakfast here is fresh and filling, the cereal billed as Swiss muesli (of which there are many versions) is simply granola and milk, not the oats and grated apple and yogurt concoction that travelers might have so happily encountered in Europe. The apple strudel with warm vanilla sauce, on the other hand, is delicious -- though not the thing to order on a hot summer’s afternoon.

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Instead, kick back, let the bartender pour you another beer, and watch as the afternoon revelers give way to the crowd that’s gathering to cheer on the sunset. It’s a lovely reason to raise a glass.

*

On the Waterfront Cafe

Location: 205 Ocean Front Walk, Venice; (310) 392-0322, www.waterfrontcafe.com.

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Price: Bundnerteller or raclette, $7 (appetizer), $13 (entree); curry rosti, $12; sandwiches and burgers, $6.50 to $11; mussels and garlic bread, $13; apple strudel with vanilla sauce, $7; 17-ounce flute Erdinger Weizenbier, $6, 60-ounce pitcher, $18.50; pint glass Anchor Steam, $5, pitcher, $16.50; bottle of Duvel Belgium Ale, $5.50.

Best dishes: Swiss specialties, including bundnerteller, curry rosti, apple strudel

Details: Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. (kitchen closes at 9:30 p.m.), Saturday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (kitchen closes at 9:30 p.m.), Tuesday through Friday; and noon to 11 p.m. (kitchen closes at 9:30 p.m.), Monday. Beer and wine. Free parking behind restaurant accessible from alley. All major credit cards.


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