Restaurant Review: Von Trapp Offers Bocce, Beer, and Bavaria

Cultures collide at Von Trapp’s on Capitol Hill, where bocce, bier, and Bavarian cuisine compete.

“So we’ll be responsible for our own food and court fees and so on?” asked Bob Sheffels, president of the Woodland Park Lawn Bowling and Bocce Club, when I invited his cabinet to join me for a few games at Von Trapp’s, the latest thematic extravaganza from globetrotting pickers James Weimann and Deming Maclise.

No, I explained, this outing was on Seattle Weekly. The paper would cover everything but the alcohol.

Sheffels laughed. “Your bosses must know how bocce players drink,” he said.

There’s something about bocce that drives folks to the bottle, which is presumably why Weimann and Maclise (owners of Bastille and Poquitos) plopped down five bocce courts in a former Capitol Hill furniture showroom (an additional two outdoor courts are scheduled to open in June).

Conceptually, Von Trapp’s is a mishmash: Bocce is an Italian sport, but the restaurant’s menu is wholly Bavarian, a compromise between the pair’s original plan for a German bier hall and a shelved idea to install bocce courts in the Fremont pub vacated by Redhook Brewing back in 2002. Commercially, though, it’s a runaway success, with competitive patrons more likely to flaunt their wait times than their bocce scores. When the complex opened in February, straight-faced hostesses regularly quoted three-hour waits for one of Von Trapp’s 420 seats.

Built to cruise-ship scale, Von Trapp’s features three bars, two floors, and one fireplace nook furnished with an elk head, hanging gothic light fixtures, and Bruegelesque wooden tables and benches. The Teutonic look is somewhat diluted elsewhere by televisions, a titanic ceiling fan, and the sheer number of brand new chairs, but the exposed rafters, wooden railings, and vintage Euro-bric-a-brac, including a set of Austrian chandeliers, are a feather in Von Trapp’s Tyrolean hat. Still, the overwhelming impression is of largeness, which is why Von Trapp’s has quickly become the place to meet up with 20 of your closest rowdy friends.

And if your friends aren’t naturally fun-loving, Von Trapp’s can nudge them in that direction, liter by liter. For drinkers who’d rather not hoist a stein that holds twice as much as the average human bladder, the bar offers its German and Austrian drafts in four smaller sizes, including a two-ounce sampler that allows aficionados to pilot their own beer flights. While the list doesn’t present a comprehensive overview of German beer styles—eaters accustomed to ordering an Optimator with their sauerbraten won’t find a doppelbock here—the on-tap selections are smartly chosen, from a Veltins pilsner to a Köstritzer schwarzbier.

The wine list isn’t quite as daring as the German-Austrian aesthetic would permit, with just two of the four available reds coming from Austria. But a list of cocktails melding spirits with beer is well worth exploring: In the terrifically kinetic Roll Pin Shandy, pear brandy, lemon, and bitters facilitate the meeting of scotch and a double IPA.

Alcohol and exercise (walking the full length of Von Trapp’s counts) are precursors to eating, and the inevitable opening gambit here is a swollen and salted pretzel ring, its ends knotted around a silver ramekin holding sweet honey mustard, Emmental cheese sauce, or a red pepper-flecked obatzda, a soft spread that would register on Southern palates as buttery pimento cheese. It’s the best of the three dips, but there’s not enough obatzda in Munich to mask the depravity of the pretzels. For simplicity’s sake, the pretzels are served at room temperature, but there’s no logistical bargain to explain why they’re dry and flavorless. When the pretzel’s split and “stuffed” with a mild horseradish cream cheese, it’s indistinguishable from the white-fleshed bagels on a Days Inn continental breakfast buffet.

Baking is clearly not the kitchen’s strong suit. Von Trapp’s serves an array of flammkuchen, the comically great German term for a cheese-covered flatbread with toppings. The traditional version’s smeared with sour cream and blanketed with bacon and roasted onions; a greasier option is finished with tomato sauce, scant mozzarella, and furling buttons of pepperoni. Either way, the dish rises only to the “Bad pizza’s better than no pizza” bar: The lackluster crust is painfully reminiscent of a frozen pie.

Von Trapp’s has also found a way to wedge mac and cheese onto an ostensibly German menu, avalanching a bowlful of spätzle, boiled down to near-mush, with way too much white cheese. Topped with curlicues of fried onions, the käsespätzle is the meatless entry on a list of forgettable entrées, including a flaccid sauerbraten and deeply fried chicken schnitzel with very mashed potatoes. But vegetarians aren’t necessarily doomed: Von Trapp’s braised red cabbage is enjoyably bright, and a plateful of roasted beets dressed with caraway and pumpkin seeds is vibrant and fresh.

The showpiece of Von Trapp’s menu is the sausage section: The housemade wurst are tucked into crusty rolls, sliced up for sliders, and served on a platter with sauerkraut and potatoes. A helpful card on each table defines the various sausages, but a sampler platter of frankfurters, cheddarwurst, kielbasa, bockwurst, nuremberg, and two kinds of brats could use an identification guide. Our server was stumped when we asked her to tell us which sausage was which. Her confusion made sense when we started eating: The sausages, trapped in casings which clung as tightly as a 3-year-old bathing suit, all tasted salty, porky, and flat. Weirdly, although Von Trapp’s touts its “from scratch” sausages, the kitchen doesn’t bother to make its own mustard; there’s squeezable Beaver Brand mustard on every table.

If Von Trapp’s is a beer hall with bocce, all of the above is highly problematic. But if it’s a bocce alley with beer, who cares whether the potato pancakes are cinnamony?

According to members of Sheffels’ bocce club, Von Trapps isn’t the perfect bocce venue. The mood’s a mite too raucous for the club’s oldest members, and the courts are too narrow for regulation play. Weimann and Maclise sought the club’s advice early in the design process, but ultimately decided that shaving a few feet off the standard court width would give guests more room to move and mingle. “Von Trapp’s has no intention of ever hosting the World Bocce Championships,” spokeswoman Kirsten Graham points out.

Clem Zipp, the city’s reigning Mr. Bocce, says “There’s hardly any place you can play bocce in Seattle, so we make our peace with it.”

And the courts—especially court #2—are good. “It’s much flatter than most courts we play on,” club president Mark Charonis says. “It’s pretty true.”

Bocce is a civilized game in which you stand next to your opponent and occasionally throw a ball at a wall with extreme force. I didn’t quite master it under the club’s tutelage, but it only took a few points to get caught up in pallino placement strategies and spocking styles. It was a heck of a lot more fun than criticizing bratwurst.

“I can’t see how you’d come here and not play bocce,” Zipp says.

VON TRAPP’S 912 12th Ave., 325-5409, 4–11 p.m. Mon.–Fri., noon–11 p.m. Sat.–Sun.

PRICE GUIDE Pretzel $4/Beet $8/Cheddarwurst sliders$12/Sauerbraten $18/Traditional flammkuchen $14/Bocce $25+/hour

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