A Brasserie In Basel: Switzerland’s Volkhaus Reinvented

By Susan James Created: January 3, 2013 Last Updated: January 5, 2013
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Volkshaus bar has drop LED lights that hang from the ceiling like a galaxy of stars. (Susan James)

Volkshaus bar has drop LED lights that hang from the ceiling like a galaxy of stars. (Susan James)

Built in 1925 as a no-frills restaurant complex for the local working community, the Volkshaus has had a blue collar history. Located in Kleinbasel, the old port and industrial center of the upper Rhine city of Basel, Switzerland, the five-story complex was built along utilitarian lines and focused on speedy service for workers with big appetites and little time for leisurely meals.

But just like the area in which it is located, things have substantially improved for the Volkshaus. In the hands of the internationally recognized Swiss architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron, the Volkhaus has undergone a Cinderella moment, morphing from a working class food hall to an upscale dining destination making its mark on the competitive restaurant scene of the city.

The architects have respected the building’s minimalist integrity and its debt to the art deco school by leaving the streetside façade basically untouched. Entering through an arcade of lights that leads to the new outdoor beer garden, the working class atmosphere of the place is still apparent.

Volkshaus nusslisalat is an unusual combination of a salad made from field greens, wild forest mushrooms, walnuts and red and green grapes, tossed with a balsamic vinegar dressing. (Susan James)

But once inside the brasserie diners find a sleekly elegant restaurant backstopped by a wait staff area placed like a small performance stage and decorated in black and silver. High-backed booths installed with curving banquettes, bistro chairs and contemporary art pieces set a scene of trendy modernism. Drop LED lights hang from the ceiling like a galaxy of stars. Originality is the byword downstairs as well where the walls of the one-of-a-kind Ladies and Gents are covered with Renaissance maps and drawings of Basel.

In keeping with the spirit of the building’s history, the food is simple and filling although head chef Marc Arnold has tucked a few gourmet treats like breast of guinea fowl and moules-frites into his menu. On the evening that I was there, we began with a nusslisalat, an unusual combination salad made from local winter field greens, wild forest mushrooms, walnuts and seasonal red and green grapes, tossed with a balsamic vinegar dressing. The smoky flavor of the mushrooms paired nicely with the sweetness of the grapes, the crunch of the walnuts and the sharp pop of the balsamic vinegar.

Our second course was a bowl of kuerbisravioli, a pumpkin ravioli served with black olives, orange segments and pumpkin seeds. The orange segments added a nice hit of acidity to the blander pumpkin and the seeds provided some texture to the homemade pasta. The third course was a bit of a disappointment. The Volkshaus hackbraten mit kraeuterjus or meatloaf with herb jus was listed on the menu as one of the house classics, the comfort food of the working man. Served with potato mousseline and glaced carrots laced with subtle overtones of maple, on the evening we were there the meatloaf, itself, disappointed being somewhat tough and under-seasoned. Dessert was better, a rich dark chocolate mousse served on a contrasting sea of pale Gruyere cream.

The Volkshaus has an extensive wine menu and in summer the beer garden offers the best of the local beers. The owners have ambitious plans for their new city landmark including a jazz club and in the upper stories of the building a boutique hotel. In the meantime, the Volkshaus bar and brasserie are just a tram ride away from most parts of the city and offer a convivial place to dine in an historic building in one of Basel’s more eclectic quarters.

Susan James is a California-based writer who has lived in India and the U.K. She specializes in art and history and has written about China’s Silk Road, Henry VIII’s England, and Singapore’s art scene.

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