The wiedergeburt (rebirth) of New York’s biergartens
Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens, New York, has been serving Czech beer under blue skies for 101 years. (David G Allan)
Few heat-choked cities have mastered the art of staying cool better than New York. In the summer, city beaches get lifeguards, public pools are filled, parks and piers show free outdoor movies and concerts, and fire hydrants are repurposed into street fountains for block parties. There are seasonal ice cream shops, Coney Island amusement rides, minor league baseball games, hootenannies in public squares, Shakespeare in the Park, ferry rides, and my favourite — beer gardens. Of all the reasons to brave the city’s warmer temperatures, sitting under clear skies with a cool, sweaty stein of Dunkel Weisse in your hand is the most compelling.
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Back in the late 1800s New York City was rich in biergartens, some legendarily enormous. They were primarily built for, and by, the city's burgeoning German population. But then Prohibition in the 1920s and an anti-German sentiment inflamed by two world wars threatened the city’s biergartens with extinction.
Luckily, in just the last few years, the city has undergone a beer garden wiedergeburt (rebirth). They are bubbling up on building rooftops, under train overpasses and in repurposed auto garages. They are capturing the imagination of celebrity chefs and, judging from the crowds, a teeming, thirsty swath of the city’s drinking-age population. According to Beer Gardens NYC, a new mobile app whose very existence is an indicator of the resurgence, there are more than 50 spots currently meeting the app’s (rather loose) definition.
The grandfather of the New York biergarten is Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens, which turned 100 last summer. The block-wide, walled-in Czech beer garden has enough picnic tables to comfortably seat 800 and is merrily packed all summer with pitcher-swilling, sausage-eating bonhomie. Pitchers of crowd pleasing Czech lagers like Staropramen and Czechvar (aka Budvar) are served under wide umbrellas and large trees, to the sound of neo-polka music. Even little kids are welcome to run around. Bohemian is the standard bearer by which all newcomers are judged.
One of those new beer gardens is the modern and lively Bier International, the first return of a biergarten to Harlem, a Manhattan neighbourhood where beer baron Captain Fred Pabst opened a 1,400-seat restaurant hall in 1900 to serve his eponymous brew. In its first summer, Bier is already popular with a diverse neighbourhood crowd, but has yet to be discovered and inundated by the Columbia students in nearby Morningside Park. The beer selection is expertly curated, with light options like Reissdorf Kolsh and Weihenstephan served in various sizes. The food options, though, tend toward the untraditional and where they do attempt classics, like German potato salad and a baked pretzel, it falls short of the competition.
Even newer is Mario Batali’s La Birreria, an Italian beer garden on Fifth Avenue that is so über-popular you queue up downstairs in a line managed by security guards with earpieces, just to leave your mobile number...for the waitlist...to get on the elevator...to the roof for a table. And on balance, it is not worth the wait. While the food is unsurprisingly good (try the Maitake mushrooms in Pecorino Sardo crema), the portions are tiny, the beer selection is largely Italian and American, the glass atrium setting and retractable roof are modern, the wait service is formally professional and when I visited, the soundtrack was Motown funk. The sum of it was a too distant cousin of the German biergarten ideal I sought.
To get that fun, packed beerhall vibe, the traditional Radegast Hall & Biergarten in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, ranks as my bürgermeister of the bunch, after Bohemian Hall. It has a rustic Bavarian wooden interior, great service, pumped-in oompa music and a thirst-quenching beer list with gems like the citrusy Dentergems Wit from Belgium and malty dark wheat Dunkel Weisse. It also had the best pretzel, my control food across the biergartens; it is large and served hot out of the oven with sweet mustard. Overall, Radegast did one of the best jobs of capturing the crowded, sloppy, jovial spirit of the traditional biergarten.
The only spot I discovered that felt more authentic was Killmeyer’s Old Bavarian Inn, inconveniently located on the southern tip of Staten Island since 1907. The subway journey across Staten Island, with a bike to peddle the last two miles from there, has a happy ending. The classic hall and beer garden rewards its pilgrims with an authentic German menu of spatzle, schnitzel, strudel and wurst, tall steins of brew and a long bottle beer list, and on Sunday afternoons, a live lederhosen-clad oompa band.