Baden-Baden, nestled between the French border and the Black Forest, is a jewel of 19th-century German spa architecture, with a famous casino (the gilt-and-chandelier adorned Kurhaus), extravagant bathhouses (most famously the imposing Friedrichsbad, where clothing is verboten), and a string of elegant cafés, restaurants and hotels.
Those seeking robust local cooking in old-fashioned surroundings should head for Le Bistro, where the menu is as traditional as the burgundy banquettes. Various kinds of flammkuchen (Alsace pizza) jostle with spätzle, rich, peppery goulash soup and, natürlich, sausages. These included a hearty version of currywurst, while a butter-bronzed Wiener schnitzel had a bowl of splendid pommes frites shoehorned onto its vast plate. Choose a Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) from the good-value wine list: in Baden-Baden detox treatments are widely available, but can wait until after lunch.
A short stroll out of the town centre along the Oos river, however, change is afoot. Not from the outside – the façade of the Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa is as stately as it was in 1872 when it opened its doors – but the bar and restaurant have been transformed. Taking the “relaxed dining, serious kitchen” approach as a blueprint, Brenners engaged designer Robert Angell (Simpson’s in the Strand, The Collins Room at the Berkeley) to shake out any Miss Havisham-style cobwebs and usher Brenners into a new era.
Now known as Fritz & Felix (a German cartoon fox and hare), the restaurant’s clubby, chintz-free bar and dining room encompass both classicism (opulent, brass-railed banquettes, parquet floor) and modernity (playful chandeliers, abstract canvases and semi-open kitchen).
The menu is more innovative still with an emphasis on vegetables. Fashionably loose-limbed, with ample opportunity for sharing, it featured – on my visit – eight vegetarian dishes: roasted cauliflower, for instance, anointed with runny egg yolk, strewn with chives and brittle tempura florets, or “Vegetable Garden”, a joyous assembly of vegetable crisps, figs, radishes, herbs and crosnes (Chinese artichokes).
Fish is a strong suit too: there was char, vibrantly sauced with beetroot, tarragon and horseradish, and Black Forest trout, partnered by a rich foam of potato and brown butter, sharpened with a slug of verjus. Nor are carnivores neglected: top-notch ravioli were stuffed with duck ragù and slathered with beurre noisette and sage; shoulder of acorn-fed Ibérico pork was paired with a smoky pimentón sauce; tarte flambée (aka flammkuchen) came with Black Forest ham and mushrooms.
Visitors to Baden-Baden may submit to the strictures of their therapists and masseurs, but Fritz & Felix’s staff are a much more accommodating bunch. Eat healthily, eat heartily… or – for the full treatment – do both.