Bornemann tells redbankgreen that he’s dropping the un-PC name for “Oak Bridge Tavern,” in recognition of its location at Oakland Street and Bridge Avenue. He’s also paring the increasingly archaic menu of bratwursts and knackwursts in favor of let’s all say it together organic.
Why? Because it’s time, he says.
The stolid Teutonic menu “has been declining for the last 10 years,” the garrulous Bornemann says in his heavily marbled accent. “All those old krauts are moving to Florida.”
Younger customers, he adds, don’t know from schnitzel: “People 25 years ago asked, ‘What is bratwurst? What is schnitzel?’ And they’re still asking. Nobody goes for German food anymore.”
Well, not nobody exactly. Bornemann says he’ll perform something of a balancing act, continuing to offer popular dishes such as venison, veal medallions and roast duck for the stalwart clientele, while making a shift to lighter fare that’s becoming increasingly popular, such as salads and grilled vegetables.
“We’d like to have the German fade away,” he says.
Oak Bridge Tavern will also offer two-and three-pound lobsters, “huge, aged steaks” and other stick-to-the-ribs fare more often associated with this side of the Atlantic.
“I call it ‘new American fusion,'” says Bornemann.
Ironically, perhaps, at the same time, he’s staking his future ever more so on a staple of the German dining experience: the beer garden. Only in this case, Oak Bridge Tavern will be bolstering its traditional tap and bottle offerings with a large array of certified-organic German, English and other brews.
All these changes Bornemann credits to the influence of his bartender and soon-to-be general manager, Jeff Anderson, a wanderlust-filled steinmaster who’s worked at the Little Kraut for eight years over three stints.
“We see it fitting in really well with Red Bank and the lifestyles of people today,” says Anderson.
Though the Oak Bridge will host an Oktoberfest in the fall, the changes would seem to sound the deathknell for all-German restaurants in the region, following the shutdowns of the Hofbrauhaus in Atlantic Highlands and Winkelmann’s in Lakewood in recent years.
It also closes a 40-year chapter for Bornemann, who landed on these shores from his native Cologne in 1964 as a 21-year-old and opened the Little Kraut on Monmouth Street, at the current location of Echo [now Jamian’s], four years later. He says he thought it was “the catchiest thing” when an American first called him a ‘kraut,’ and when fellow Germans tried to dissuade him from using the epithet as his restaurant’s name, Bornmann says he told them, “we take the derogatory and we turn it into something positive.”
He bought the current location in 1979, and lives in what he called the “penthouse” upstairs.
Bornemann enjoys telling visitors that former Channel 7 Eyewitness News foodie Bob Lape came to do pieces about the restaurant four times in three years. “He loved the place,” he says.
Is he sad to sever the ties to his culinary heritage? “Yes,” he says, “but it had its day.”
The beer garden is already being touted by a new sign in the front window; the Oak Bridge Tavern name will displace that of the Little Kraut “as soon as the sign gets here,” Bornemann says.