For such a seemingly simple amalgamation of water, yeast, and flour, the lovely pretzel has been a driving force in the snacking scene for centuries. I’ve happily noticed these tasty baked treats increasingly popping up on menus in our fair city – of course, not without a few good-old Bay Area–inspired touches. And I’m not alone. Even Slanted Door chef/owner Charles Phan mentioned in a recent Wall Street Journal interview that “everybody’s making pretzels.”
I could trace my pretzel obsession to my DNA. (I’m a quarter German.) But also, my fondest memories of Germany are related to the twisted treat: First, during college I traveled to Heidelberg, a town chock-full of pretzel carts brimming with sesame-topped pretzels, poppy pretzels… Well, you get the picture. Since I couldn’t choose, I tried them all.
My second trip to Germany was just last year. I arrived on the first day of Oktoberfest and promptly beelined it to the Spaten tent. Not only were the pretzels amazing, they were also a good accompaniment to the steins of pilsner consumed while standing on tables and singing with my new German friends.
As far as SF is concerned, my theory is that the pretzel’s rise in popularity corresponds directly to the cult following of craft beers and beer appreciation in general. A good pretzel is exactly the beer-drinking vehicle we’ve been missing – until now.
This outdoor oasis encapsulates my memories of Germany. There is no better alfresco pretzel-eating scene in San Francisco than the one at Suppenkuche’s Biergarten in Hayes Valley. A stein of Köstritzer or Spaten and the sunflower-seeded pretzel make for the perfect afternoon respite. Usually the topping choices include the traditional salt, but you can also try poppy, sesame, and on an especially lucky day, sunflower seed. The pretzels come from Firebrand Artisan Breads out of Oakland, where co-owner Matt Kreutz has been making pretzels for about a year.
Order at the bar, get a number, and your basket is brought to your table. It comes with freshly shaven horseradish that has an amazing kick that gives wasabi a run for its money. Next to that is a dollop of Dijon mustard – nothing too fancy, and you get to blend your own spread concoction depending on your predilection for horseradish (mine never goes wasted).
Over at German-owned Schmidt’s in the Mission, the pretzel has been on the menu since day one. Turns out, the pretzel dough is sourced from an old family recipe at Esther’s Bakery, a German-owned ma and pa establishment in Mountain View.
The pretzels are baked every afternoon at the restaurant right before opening. So the idea is to get there as close to the 5 p.m. opening time and be rewarded with a warm pretzel roll. It’ll arrive on a plate with butter and a sweet mustard called Löwen that’s imported from Düsseldorf.
I asked Schmidt’s co-owner Christiane Schmidt (who also co-owns Walzwerk) about the butter, and she informed me that in Germany you might get a pretzel and a sausage together. The mustard is typically for the sausage and the butter for the bread.
Some people credit Monk’s Kettle (opened in December 2007) for birthing the gastropub movement in San Francisco. Whether you agree or not, these guys are at least partially responsible for introducing the pretzel to the bar scene in SF. As owner Christian Albertson recalled, “It was on our very first menu, and it’s been a very strong seller from the start.”
Monk’s Kettle served a store-bought pretzel until chef Adam Dulye came along in 2011. Now, like Schmidt’s, theirs is from Esther’s Bakery. But this one is plate-sized and served with stone ground mustard and house-made cheddar ale fondue made with Stone Pale Ale.
At Monk’s Kettle’s new, more upscale offshoot, Abbot’s Cellar, you won’t find a pretzel on the menu. But you might find a pretzel donut hole dusted with hop sugar at certain beer pairing dinners – if you should be so lucky. It first debuted as the dessert pairing for the Titan IPA from Great Divide but also pairs nicely with Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA.
At the months-old gastropub St. Vincent on Valencia Street, chef Bill Niles offers pretzels for people coming in for drinks. “I think it’s a simple solution to the problem most chefs face in developing a menu – trying to make snacks that aren't warm olives, spiced almonds, or fried garbanzo beans.” Being a Delaware Valley native, where pretzels are a normal part of life, he’s a self-proclaimed pretzel fanatic.
According to Bill, “I baked and ate pretzels almost every day before I put them on the menu. It made total sense to have them at St. Vincent. It’s bread, and the moment you twist it, it’s a pretzel.”
As for the St. Vincent pretzel, the story goes: “I started with a recipe from an old Pennsylvania Dutch cookbook, then tweaked and tweaked until I got the pretzel I always wanted: Amish-style.” Basically, it’s butter dipped, which explains its deliciousness. Bill diverges from there and acknowledges a little Tartine influence (he worked at Bar Tartine from 2009 to 2012), which is to add seeds.
His version is sesame, fennel, and cumin, and it comes with butter and spicy, house-made mustard. The mustard is actually a blend of two mustards: a Dijon-style as the base and one that’s fermented for a week with crushed and whole mustard seeds.
St. Vincent’s brew expert Sayre Piotrkowski recommends the Heavenly Hefeweizen from Craftsman Brewing Co., which has a hint of clove that accents the cumin and fennel seeds. There’s also a smoked hefeweizen known as Schlenkerla Rauchbier Weizen for something a little more unique.
Old-world deli Salumeria is turning the bar snack into a meal. It all started in 2011 when Matt Kreutz of Firebrand started bringing his pretzels over to flour + water (he’s their bread supplier). In no time, the restaurant suggested a trade of gratis meals for unlimited pretzels.
When the flour + water team opened Salumeria on 20th Street in the Mission, they worked with Matt to develop the biggest pretzel roll possible that still maintained the taste and texture of the traditional, twisted pretzel, but could be used as a sandwich vehicle. Now, it’s a salted torpedo-shaped roll that weighs in at five ounces.
The sandwich made with this roll is a reconstructed version of the best, typical German fare: mustard, pickles, cheese, and meat. Salumeria’s chef, Matt Sigler, prefers the meat to be a good sausage because the pretzel roll “essentially serves as the cradle that also is dense enough to support biting into the casing of the sausage.” But he’s been known to put roast beef, corned beef, and prosciutto cotto inside the roll, too.
The pretzel nuggets at Twenty Five Lusk in SOMA are all about ease of sharing. Chef/owner Matthew Dolan notes the nostalgic factor of pretzels: “I put pretzels on the menu because just before we kicked off the Twenty Five Lusk restaurant project, I visited my younger brother in NYC, and we sat outside at Zum Schneider, a stupefying German restaurant focusing on beautiful beer and all things pork. Their brezn, or freshly baked pretzel with butter, was such a hit that it stuck with me three years later when I wrote the bar menu for Lusk.”
Even though the nuggets are not in the traditional twisted shape, Matthew emphasizes that this version is as close to a Bavarian classic as it gets. “We sourced an old recipe in German, translated it – thanks to the swift minds at Google – and spent a few weeks running trials and adjusting the recipe until it was exact.”
Going against tradition, the Lusk snack forgoes butter and mustard for truffle Gruyère fondue, because, according to Matthew: “Even the perfectly made pretzel enjoys an accompaniment. Our truffle Gruyère sauce is considered charming by some, but your favorite mustard, really good butter, or even a bit of cured meat can go a long way.”
As far as Matthew’s take on pairings, “I personally drink Allagash White [a Belgian wheat beer]. I think cold climate white wines like Grüner Veltliner and some Rieslings pair nicely, but it’s tough to outdo the almost romantic combination of warm pretzels and beer. For the non-beer and wine lovers, I encourage them to try beer again.”
German spots like Suppenkuche’s Biergarten and Schmidt’s – as well as the Austrian-owned Leopold’s, which serves pretzels from German bakers in Marin on Thursdays through Saturdays – are your go-to spots for an authentic pretzel and beer experience when you don’t want to hop a transcontinental flight. On the other hand, Salumeria’s sandwich, St. Vincent’s buttery seeded number, Twenty Five Lusk’s nuggets, and the Monk’s Kettle’s plate-sized offerings are a new take on an old favorite. Just make sure you get a beer.