What do semi-informed outsiders think of Essen, Germany? Immediately certain images pop to mind: Krupp, Thyssen, steel works and coal mines, old smokestacks dominating a grimy neglected industrial town. Some Germans still refer to the place as “Alter Ruhrpott” (freely translated: Old Mine Pit) – not very complimentary and without much nostalgia. The spitting image of worn-out mining, steel towns like Pittsburg, or Youngstown in the States). Well, no longer so for Essen… Okay, the traces of this industrial legacy are still remembered in Essen, possibly occasionally celebrated too. But there’s also a new Essen, and surprisingly fashionable, definitely friendlier, and much greener too.
On a short trip there, my hosts were kind enough to make the visit more informative, give a quick city-tour, point out the contrasts with days gone by, and toward the late afternoon, early evening took me to a rustic contrast of my industrial image of Essen. It was the “Alte Fähre” Restaurant, with a view on the river Ruhr… Well, river in parentheses, rather a gentle well-mannered brook, a stream perhaps heading, hoping to meet a river somewhere. The “Alte Fähre” is a bit on the outskirts of Essen. It’s a pleasant old, colorful farm structure. It’s more like what Germans call a “Biergarten Gasthof”, a former farm dressed-up into a cozy restaurant, and fronted by a large outdoors terrace garden.
Of course, because of the balmy evening that day, I didn't get to see much of the inside, just briefly in passing, on my way to the impeccably clean bathrooms. The outside arrangements were simple - long wooden tables lined up in a row in close proximity for the Ruhr River view… Of course, my hosts being German, reservations had been made and including a table strictly for our own party. At other tables around us, clearly, some space sharing was going on, on a busy laid-back evening. Be aware, this sometimes happens in Europe... But have no fear - excellent way to make new friends, break the ice. The “Alte Fähre” is billed as “internationale Küche” ("Küche", meaning kitchen, meaning dishes from everywhere), but in fact, thankfully, many of the choices on the menu were very German. Service at this restaurant was professional, pleasant and prompt. The drinks came around quickly. I think I had a Warsteiner brew - excellent. The food did even better: I only know for a fact what I had: "Leberkäse" (a fine ground German or Austrian meatloaf), browned in the pan, loaded with pan-fried onions and potatoes, and in my foody fantasies, sometimes plainly irresistible. My hosts had settled for local classics such as mixed endive with sautéed black pudding (pan-fried blood sausages), and a creamy chanterelle mushroom dish on homemade bread dumplings. It was all plate service, huge portions, and fresh salads served separately. As anyone who has spent time in Germany knows, the German "Küche" is excellent, generous, and generally not too indecent in terms of pricing either.
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