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.
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
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.
The dirndl-printed t-shirts and grey skirts of the wait staff
at the Standard Hotel’s Biergarten
in Manhattan’s Meat Packing District is a cheeky nod to their classic roots.
The wait staff is adept at keeping cool while pouring amber Ayinger Weisse and
dark Köstritzer Schwarzbier for the
masses waving yellow tickets for more. The fresh, doughy hubcap-sized Bavarian
pretzels alone are worth waiting in the line that forms on weekends. Add to
that its prime location, under the southern end of the new
High Line park, and Biergarten ranks as my third favourite, with the added
chance to beer garden hop.
Under the north end of the High Line lies the Lot on Tap, the offspring of
another celebrity chef. Tom Colicchio has assembled a makeshift space of picnic
tables, good beer (including a slightly sweet Highline Elevated Wheat by Brooklyn Brewery) and popular food
trucks, like Rickshaw Dumplings.
For the most part, the outer boroughs beat their Manhattan
counterparts when it comes to city beirgartens. Midtown’s Hofbrau Bierhaus gets authenticity points
for dirndl-clad waitresses, Dunkel on tap and juicy bratwurst, but loses all
those points for the sports-dominated flat-screen TVs and having a skylight and
small patio instead of a garden. Flatiron’s BeerParc has gotten a lot
of attention since it opened this summer but it barely passes the sip test for
what is a beer garden. Little more than a few food carts and tables and chairs
between two buildings, it is a notch just above a lunchtime food court. It gets
two points for having delicious and refreshing Radeberger pilsner on tap, but
loses one of them for serving it in a plastic cup. Its “authentic Bavarian
pretzel” is a smaller, pricier version of the hard, dry, hot dog-stand pretzel
you can buy around the corner on Sixth Avenue.
It may be a further stretch of the definition of biergarten,
but the best beer bar in the city, Spuyten
Duyvil in Williamsburg, does have a lovely, shaded backyard with trees and
old metal lawn furniture. Rely on the friendly volks behind the bar to guide you through the intimidating and
complex beer menu to something you will love. I was enthralled with a Weisen
Edel-Weisse, a Mahr’s Brau lager and a third bottle of something (the name lost
in the haze induced by the first two) that the bartender described as “the baby
the first two beers would have, if they could mate”. Mission Dolores, at the bottom of Brooklyn’s
Park Slope neighbourhood, is a converted auto garage with its roof cut off and
a lovingly selected daily draught beer selection. It feels more San Francisco
than Munich, but it makes for a fun outdoor drinking outing nonetheless.
Whatever route you make to drink through these and the 40
other options, try to end at Berry Park
in Williamsburg. The beer menu includes the usual suspects of Haufbrau and
Radeberger, and the food pairing of Bavarian pretzel and gooey macaroni and
cheese are worth saving room for. But it is the space that makes Berry Park a
winner. Downstairs is a large candlelit Valhalla, like something out of an old
Bavarian castle, and the roof has a small bar and big views of the Manhattan
skyline across the East River.
As we head toward summer’s finish line — Labor Day weekend
(3 to 5 September) — when pools shut down and outdoor movies and concerts end,
remember this: outdoor biergartens will still be open. Unlike summer’s other
seasonal offerings, they serve well into autumn, for a little holiday you might
have heard of, called Oktoberfest.