Schnitzel and Me and Rain on the Roof

A Wintery Love Song to Dutch Garden, Santa Barbara’s Bastion of German Food

<strong>PRAYING FOR RAIN</strong>: The author awaits a downpour so he can dine inside at his favorite rainy-day restaurant.
Paul Wellman

Now that it’s raining again — and we must keep alive hopes for a longer springtime vestige of the Godzilla El Niño promised — meet me at Dutch Garden to celebrate. That’s right: Any damned tourist can tell you where to sip suds and eat tacos al fresco when the sun shines, but it takes a real Santa Barbaran with poetry in his or her soul to lead you to a rendezvous beneath the Dutch’s tin roof when Mother Nature decides to let loose.

It’s not like they need the business. “We’re doing so great right now,” confessed Ken Luetjen, who has kept the rustic chic of DG alive with his wife, Laurie Luetjen, for 32 years. “It’s not like there is a pattern to the business or that it just jumped in the last year. Let’s just say I have three days off a week, and lately most of the time I’m in here anyways.”

So what’s different about the four-day-a-week business? “We haven’t changed a thing,” he laughed, although there are dinner specials like the chuck goulash, sweetbreads, and quite-rare chili night. If there is a secret weapon, it’s the soup, often made from unexpected veg like Jerusalem artichoke. “It’s just what’s available and what I feel like cooking,” said Luetjen, who’s made whimsical soups delicious since the first Bush years.

What’s constantly beloved about the Garden — which started out life 90 years ago as the Poppy Café — is its constancy. German food, a strong counterpoint to California’s fresh-cuisine mandate, is what they serve, with few embellishments or revisions. The sausages, made by the people who used to supply Luetjen’s Beverly Hills French restaurant Café Four Oaks, are perfectly spiced, like the Weisswurst, shadowed by cinnamon and nutmeg. The pork chops and hamburgers are terrific, as are the regionally caught fish, but the zenith of Luetjen’s kitchen is the humble schnitzel: pork loin tenderized, breaded, and cooked to crisp perfection with an addictive butter flavor. All this hearty food pairs well with inclement weather.

But ambiance is my true topic. There are three eating environments: the counter for random camaraderie, the garden tables for fresh air and enough room to yodel … but the dining room in the back is shack-like, cozy, ornamented with German beer paraphernalia, and reinforced by a tin roof that turns downpours into the most soothing brand of percussion. It’s even better if the temperature dips: On the back wall is an ancient radiant heater with red-glowing wires, warm like a crackling fire.

Then, of course, there is the beer — on tap and in bottle, from little German breweries to monasteries to the latest in California’s best craft ales. It predates the all-hipster-beer joints in this town.

The best places in town I find are all like this one, with an owner with a well-developed cuisine who is still hard at the daily work of cooking long after his place made money. So I love it there when it rains, but I’d eat schnitzel and red cabbage in a heat wave, too.

The Dutch Garden is located at 4203 State Street. Call (805) 967-4911.


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