Cafe Katja’s triumphant return

The redesigned Cafe Katja at 79 Orchard Street on New York's Lower East Side.
The redesigned Cafe Katja at 79 Orchard Street on New York’s Lower East Side.

It is a delight to report that Cafe Katja‘s reopening at 79 Orchard Street this past Wednesday was such a wonderful pleasure. Owners Erwin Schröttner and Andrew Chase have doubled the restaurant’s space without sacrificing the intimacy of the original; the redesign features attractive lighting fixtures, charming ceramic pieces along the walls, and a less crowded ambiance when at capacity. There’s aromatherapy too, from the new first-floor kitchen openly visible from the bar, wafting the scent of Central European-style food that was a mainstay of the original menu, which will be expanded bit by bit over the coming weeks (to include — finally — schnitzel).

We are very glad indeed that Cafe Katja (especially with its wine list of Austrian whites and reds) has reopened to reveal a thoughtful, relaxing and attractive setting for a comfortable evening out. I originally wrote about Cafe Katja last June in the short essay below; The Lo-Down has more on the restaurant’s history and its expansion.

On those rare occasions when Marilyn and I find ourselves free of the children on a weekday evening, we’re lucky enough to have a wide choice of restaurants on the Lower East Side, but most of the time we end up at Cafe Katja at 79 Orchard Street. Katja is not quite an Austria-style cafe; in his review of the restaurant for The New York Times in 2007, Peter Meehan described it as a buschenschank: “Traditional buschenschanks spring up toward the end of the year in the south of Austria. (Nearer to Vienna they’re called heurigers.) They are places of simple eating and drinking, where farmers can sell as much of anything they’ve grown, raised, fermented, preserved or otherwise wrangled from their land before the government assesses taxes on it.”

Cafe Katja is certainly in the tradition: a neighborhood joint without pretension, with many items on the menu possessed of local origins, and the Austrian-ness of the restaurant is more in its intimacy and conviviality than in any attempt to replicate the setting of a Vienna cafe. It is one of the few bars in the neighborhood that lacks television or a jukebox, and I don’t think it can comfortably seat more than 25, at the bar and at the tables, at any one time. But it is warm, and pleasant, and (unfortunately for those who must stand in line to wait for tables) invites a long alcoholic, conversational stay.

The food is “Austrian-style” rather than an assertive imitation of the cuisine as well. There’s a fine selection of wurst, honestly the best selection I’ve come across outside of any German specialty restaurant, and I am often drawn to the fine cheese-stuffed krainer sausages and the delightful spätzle — neither too chewy or mushy — though on a splurge there are excellent Austrian meatballs as well. On our most recent visit Marilyn and I shared the aufschnitt-teller — cured meats served with crisp toast, with a dollop of liverwurst on the side — and a red cabbage salad large enough for two. The serving sizes and the character of the food were perfect for a warmish late-spring evening.

I am convinced that Central European red wines give Western European reds more than a run for their money, and the Cafe Katja’s wine list offers a magnificent selection of Austrian zweigelts and blaufrankisches and a long, tempting array of liqueurs and schnapps. On occasion there are also excellent Hungarian reds — very hard to come by, and when they appear on the menu, I am tempted to order up the whole case to drag the remainder home.

But the primary reason Marilyn and I keep returning is that it is very much a neighborhood watering hole, and unusually welcoming. The wait staff is, to a person, attentive and good-natured; owners Erwin Schröttner and Andrew Chase (who himself lives on the Lower East Side) can often be found in convivial conversation with patrons. This is what happens when a local business springs up in a local community and remains dedicated to serving it well.

Fortunately they will be able to serve more of it soon; in the next few months the cafe will complete an expansion into the storefront next door, and if all goes well none of the intimacy will be lost in the expansion. There is more about Cafe Katja in a recent issue of the print edition of another fine Lower East Side tradition, The Lo-Down (more about the expansion can be found in this 2011 post). Prost to the restaurant’s continued good health.