Roaring across Capital Club 16's silver-toned homepage is the New York Central, a 1927 locomotive that combined all the muscle of American industry and all the opulence of Art Deco design. Roaring onto Raleigh's restaurant scene this summer is Jake Wolf, chef and proprietor of Capital Club 16, who celebrates that vigorous era.
"We wanted to have that Art Deco-meets-American saloon feel, to bring the whole Americana thing into it," explains Wolf. He is sitting at one of his restaurant's marble tables, pointing out Art Deco details like arched triptych windows, geometric door pulls and period chairs with the same distinctive streamlining as the New York Central. He nods to a mahogany bar salvaged from Lüchow's, which served German fare in Manhattan for a century; a yellowed American flag that once graced his grandfather's Connecticut gas station now hangs over the bar.
Capital Club 16 is on West Martin Street in a 12-story corner building originally built in 1930 to house a prestigious men's club. Sit at the wall of windows inside the bright, airy new restaurant and watch the city go by: You're just one block off Fayetteville Street and next door to the soon-to-be-revived Kings music hall. Though its name may generate visions of stuffy suits downing two fingers of Scotch, Capital Club 16 is anything but clubby. Servers here are young and tattooed, and the music is loud and indie.
Jake Wolf and his wife, Shannon, who manages the front of the house, were both raised in Southern Pines but lived in Manhattan for much of the past decade, where he ran the kitchen at Zum Schneider, a German hot spot in the East Village, and she worked in television production. Before that, he trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and cooked at a destination hotel in the German countryside between Stuttgart and Munich.
It is no accident, then, that the Wolfs' "American saloon" features a menu with more than a little German influence. From the warm pretzel (crisp and toasty, but small for $6, even with its decadent spread of butter, Brie, bleu and paprika) to the potato pancakes (with smooth house-made applesauce, tangy and tinged with allspice, $7) to the German Red Hots (kielbasa grilled in paprika molasses with horseradish dip, $7), it's clear Wolf learned plenty abroad. Also look for a pork schnitzel sandwich (with lemon caper aioli, $8) and brat on a Kaiser ($7), served at both lunch and dinner.
Breads come from Guglhupf in Durham and sausages from up I-95: "We get our meat from a sixth-generation German-descent butcher in New York [called] Schaller & Weber. I've got a guy who drives them down about every week," says Wolf.
The house specialty is the Butcher's Plate ($14), and our tasters would order it again, every time. It's easily expandable for a large group or gathering: Reserve the long-plank "family table" in back—handmade of distressed heart pine by Wolf's father—and order the Family Butcher Platter, at an additional $10 per person. With a selection of grilled bratwurst (pork), delicate weisswurst (spiced pork and veal), skinny Nürnberger sausages (pork in lamb casing), smoked pork chop, crisp pork belly, spicy house-made mustards, roasted potatoes and sautéed apples, the Butcher's Plate is a spectacle of Bavarian bravado.
"I love to eat German food," Wolf says. "It's my favorite food. My grandparents on the Wolf side are from Kansas and Missouri, very Midwestern farm-style."
Some of the desserts (all $5) and Sunday brunch dishes are Wolf family recipes. The lemon cheese pie is his grandmother's; the pound cake is Shannon's grandmother's. Sundays he cooks sausage gravy with egg surprise ($8) from his Kansas roots, and it's one of the best dishes on the brunch menu.
Brunch, served Sundays from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., contains some ideal hangover food, like the pretzel knot minis with smoked salmon and cream cheese ($8) or the challah French toast with a side of Jarlsberg grits cake ($7.50), which brilliantly solves the age-old dilemma of sweet versus salty. (Sunday brunch was the one visit, of three, at which service was slow and undereducated; we presume it's a temporary problem that will improve with practice.)
Shannon Wolf, a vegetarian, had a hand in creating signature dishes like the Portobello Reuben ($7.25) at lunch and the Crispy Garden Skillet ($11) at dinner. The skillet is a courageous curveball and fortunately scores a home run. It's essentially a Korean bi bim bap, which traditionally means a hot stone pot that scalds a bed of rice and raw vegetables, crisping them while scrambling a runny egg. The Wolfs' version uses a single-serving cast-iron skillet in place of the stone pot, topping the rice with pan-seared root vegetables, mushrooms and a lightly fried egg. A side of German-style cabbage stands in for kimchi, with a lively paprika dip in place of gochujang.
To attract the work crowd, Fridays from 4–7 p.m. is $6 Brat and Beer, and weekday lunches feature the Daily Ordinary: $5–$6 for a plate of sausages, sauerkraut, bread and a drink. Though sauerkraut may have but a few passionate fans in coleslaw country, our tasters were won over by Wolf's. Softer than usual, starchier and not too potent, the sauerkraut complimented the food without dominating it. Though he doesn't ferment the cabbage in-house, Wolf tinkers with his German import: "I cook it down in a large pot with juniper, cloves, bay leaves, white wine and a big slab of smoked pork belly. Right before plating I like to stir in a spoonful of house-made applesauce as an enhancer."
Not a fan of German cuisine? You'll get by just fine. The clever sweet onion and fennel soup ($3.50) is a twist on classic beef-broth French onion. There's a butter lettuce wedge and a Caesar (both $7); a burger, either standard or open-faced with egg (both $8), paired with hand-cut fries sprinkled with fresh thyme. For dinner, there's also a fancy mac and three-cheese in a cast-iron skillet ($10); and the Gentleman's Steak, an 8-oz. sirloin with Cabernet mushroom sauce and rosemary potatoes ($16).
Beers are mostly local (Aviator and Big Boss) or German (Reissdorf Kolsch on tap; Paulaner Hefe-Weizen and Spaten Optimator bottled). Austria and California battle it out on the wine list, with one quite drinkable Grüner Veltliner at $5 a glass from a 19-year-old Austrian vintner named Paul D.
Wolf is exploring ways to weave Capital Club 16 into the fabric of downtown, starting with sidewalk dining.
"In September we'll try to time a grand-opening party with the first day of Oktoberfest, which starts in mid-September. My old boss from New York plays in an oompah band; we're going to have them down. And it's not your grandpa's oompah band—this is, straight up, our generation—anything from '99 Red Balloons' to old beer-hall music."
Capital Club 16 seems to be trying to draw both a general crowd and a niche crowd simultaneously. It champions America's prewar era and claims to have a traditional American menu ... then the kitchen sends out plate after plate of pretzels, schnitzels, spaetzle and wurst. Is this an identity crisis? Do we care? Oompah!