So I booked a table at Volkshaus Brasserie and put my eating pants on. The food in Basel is generally good: they city's status as a hub of industry and commerce on both the French and German borders mean that a lot of business lunches and dinners go down here. What the city does best, food-wise, is a fairly traditional take on French-Germanic staples. This is Switzerland, and Switzerland, if nothing else, likes to play to its strengths: dairy, sausages, spuds and lip-smackingly good onion sauce.
Volkshaus Brasserie's chef, Marc Arnold, stays close to the brasserie menu model: there's croque madame with salad (ie, toasted Gruyere cheese and ham on toast with two sunny-side-up fried eggs; CHF22), excellent veal sausage with the ubiquitous rösti and crispy onions (CHF25) and steak-frites (with either bearnaise or herb butter sauce; CHF42). But there are also a few welcome surprises; mine came in the form of an entire boiled artichoke served with tomato vinaigrette, which may just have my vote for best shared entrée of the year. I'm surprised this dish doesn't feature on more menus: it's simple, ideal for a relaxed start to proceedings and very beautiful to look at -- the ideal finger food, in other words.
The room itself is much like the artichoke; elegant and deceptive in its simplicity. Designed by the famed Herzog + de Meuron, the 1925 room's tricksiest element is the dozens of large-scale light bulbs, which cast a flattering glow over night-time proceedings. In the day, enormous windows looking out onto the beer garden allow natural light to flood the space. Floors are dark wood, high-backed banquette seats are of dark green leather, tables and chairs gleam and walls are either black or white. The sense of space, the stark elegance of its proportions and the simplicity of it all put the diner at ease. Add comfort food to the mix and you can see why people are so impressed. This is not a buttoned-up affair, but a neighbourhood haunt that just happens to be extremely pleasing to the eye.
Service is surprisingly relaxed by Basel standards. It's good: attentive and polite, and avoids the usual Basel display of pushing you along in a bid to demonstrate just how efficient everything in Switzerland is, including the dining experience. That said, this is still not the sort of place to dawdle over the menu -- they really don't understand that kind of thing in these parts.
The drinks list for the Volkshaus is the standard cafe list throughout Switzerland. There are no great surprises here, but that's fine. This place is all about ingesting the familiar and being able to admire the surrounds.
After dinner we retired to the bar, which is, as you'd expect, beautiful. It's all dark walls and nooks, a long zinc bar and old-fashioned zinc tables, miniscule white tiles on the floor and more large-scale light bulbs. Shame about the rather pedestrian cocktail list and the music (R&B just doesn't go with these surrounds).
All in all, this place is indeed as lovely to look at as reported, and invitingly free of pretension. I can't wait to return in Summer, when the beer garden will come into its own.
Address: Rebgasse 12, CH-4058 Basel
Prices: entrées CHF22-24; mains CHF25-56
Best for: Simple, well-executed dishes that allow you to relax into the wonderful surrounds