The Red Lion Tavern in Silver Lake was kitschy long before being kitschy became a hallmark of counterculture cool. The venerable German beer garden on Glendale Boulevard, which has always been earnest about its over-the-top Bavarian-themed decor and dirndl-clad bartenders, is now situated across the street from one of hipsterdom's most self-consciously ironic and aggressively kitschy bars, the Cha Cha Lounge.
This faded Frau of Silver Lake was cool long before a pilgrimage of the young and tragically hip led to a steady gentrification process that last fall resulted in Forbes magazine dubbing Silver Lake "America's Hippest Hipster Neighborhood." Now, Friday and Saturday nights see dueling lines at both the Cha Cha and the Lion (as its devoted cast of regulars call it).
History: Those longing for an authentic taste of Silver Lake's past would do well to spend their time at the Lion. Founded in 1959 by Ted Mandekic and Edward Pagliano, who also owned Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet in downtown Los Angeles, the Red Lion was originally an English-style pub. In 1963, new owners took over and changed it into a German bar. In 1981, a tough, hard-working German man named Uwe Backen bought the place and turned it into what it is today: a sprawling, three-level theme park of frothy German beer and steaming hot sausages. (Note: I worked for Backen and his business partner Walter Hohls as a bartender from 1999 to 2005.)
A beer garden for the new millennium: The biggest change since Backen's 2003 death, which triggered another change in ownership, is that men now work the floor and the bar. Prior to that, men were found only in the kitchen (which is likely why in the early '00s Maxim magazine named the Red Lion one of L.A.'s best bars). Old-school cash registers were also replaced, and a vegan bratwurst sausage was introduced on the menu. Some of the older, more seasoned customers saw these changes as one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (soy sausage?!), but they mostly have been accepted as necessary updates for the 21st century.
Hearty eatin': The Red Lion is built on excess. Sausage platters come laden with three types — Bockwurst, knackwurst and bratwurst — as well as a healthy scoop of spicy German mustard and a pile of pickles; the Schweinebraten (roast pork loin) comes with two or three pancake-sized slices of tender meat buried in savory gravy; and the boiled Eisbein (ham hock) is a giant, trembling mass of pink meat shot through with a gleaming white bone and served speared with a serrated knife. These are not meals to be undertaken lightly, which is why most diners at the Red Lion look as if they've just climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro when they are done eating.
Epic drinkin': Panting and red-faced from the exertion of it all, those who dine at the Red Lion inevitably call for more beer. Revelers often order 2-liter boots of beer (shaped like actual boots) and wooden saws of shots (you buy six and get the seventh for free). A crisp, cold Warsteiner Pilsener, perhaps, or for those with more daring tendencies, a deadly, dark Spaten Optimator, which has an ABV of 7.2 %. At the end of the night, those in the know order a tiny bottle of Underberg, a bitter digestif designed to soothe overextended stomachs with a proprietary mix of magical herbs.
If that doesn't sound like a recipe for fun, you can always order the soy sausage.