A garden that just doesn't grow on you
Tom Sietsema wrote about the Biergarten Haus for a September 2010 First Bite column.
I fell in love with Germany when I lived there for a year as a high school student and discovered the simple pleasures of a warm, salt-crusted pretzel served straight from the baker's oven and a proper golden Wiener schnitzel dished out with vinegar-laced potato salad. My pre-euro romance was kindled by an exchange rate back then that was close to four marks to the dollar, allowing me to spend quite a bit of time exploring "bee sting" cakes in the many pastry shops and hefeweizen in the many pubs.
News of a beer garden opening on H Street Northeast this summer rekindled some of those fond memories and whetted my appetite for some of the lusty food of my youth.
The owners (from Washington's Russia House) got the look down pat. "It's like another dimension," a friend says as he walks from the dark-paneled front bar, decorated with antique steins, onto the sprawling brick patio of Biergarten Haus. A sea of sturdy communal tables and heavy benches, shaded by outsize umbrellas and fenced in with more wood, suggests a forest. Flags from Germany's 16 states flap from a small carriage house that has been turned into a brew dispenser. Along with a round of beer from the all-German list, assembled by local beer guru Bill Catron, my quartet orders a basket of pretzel rolls.
Dry and dull and served with ordinary mustard, they're the first sign we're not going to be visiting Germany tonight. Further into dinner, no amount of beer can erase the reality of arid sauerbraten, spongy bratwurst and a Wiener schnitzel whose stiffness could qualify the meat as a lethal weapon. The squiggly sauteed spaetzle are decent, but a guy can down only so many little dumplings.
The largely joyless food is eaten to the accompaniment of polka music, but the loudest notes are those playing in my mouth: oom-pah-blah.
Sept. 1, 2010
At Biergarten Haus in Northeast Washington, Oktoberfest is year-round
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010
The buzz: Oktoberfest has come to H Street NE. That's the only way to describe the scenes in the festive outdoor beer garden at Biergarten Haus, a German-themed bar that opened in mid-June, just in time for the World Cup. More than 300 people can crowd onto the spacious back patio, and visiting is like wandering into a party in Munich.
Groups of laughing revelers toast with one-liter mugs of German beer at long wooden tables, as strolling accordionists play traditional drinking songs. The flags of Germany's 16 states flutter overhead, and chestnut trees and umbrellas offer shade.
Under a blue and white striped tent, waitresses carry trays of glasses and giant platters of sausages, sauerkraut and fried schnitzel to more tables, while a tall fountain burbles away.
But it was when Germany played in the World Cup that Biergarten Haus seemed farthest from Washington. Lines stretched down the block, with many people wearing a Bastian Schweinsteiger or Michael Ballack jersey, or a red, black and yellow scarf. As the games played on a pair of 100-inch projection screens under the tent, men in lederhosen danced on tables, hoisted steins and urged the team on with German songs. (The upside of Germany's semifinal loss? It'll be easier to get in this weekend.)
The scene: Despite the heat, Meg Rowland and her friends found drinking under the outdoor tent to be "a very enjoyable experience -- it doesn't hurt when you're drinking giant liters of beer," said Rowland, 25, the author of a blog called 2Birds1Blog.
"It's like Disney, but in a good way," said Andrew Violante, 24, who works for a nonprofit group, though he wasn't a big fan of the German marches playing over the sound system.
"It's schtick, but I'd definitely come back," Rowland added. "I can see this being wonderful in the fall."
The beer garden is the jewel, drawing everyone from college students to German natives in their 50s for a beer and a snack. It's so popular that bouncers are occasionally stationed at both the front door and the door leading out to the patio, which hits capacity early on. It's not as if being stuck inside is a bad thing. Twelve German draft beers are available inside. The two-level space is modeled after a Bavarian hunting lodge, with rich chestnut trim, displays of vintage beer steins, and mounted animal heads. (Don't miss the enormous red stag hanging upstairs.)
Biergarten Haus didn't make the best first impression in early days, however. During the first weekend, the beer coolers got too warm, and draft beers were mostly foam.
And until last weekend, any men who needed to use the restroom were directed to three portable toilets in an alley behind the bar. The early visitors should come back and give the place another chance.
In your glass: The beer list was created by local beer expert Bill Catron, who assembled the Belgian draft list at Brasserie Beck. So expect delicious German lagers (and two from Austria). There's a variety of styles among the dozen taps and 15 bottles: the hoppy Paulaner pilsner; light, refreshing Reissdorf Kolsch; the smooth, medium-bodied Warsteiner Dunkel, and one of my favorites, the dark Weihenstephaner Korbinian, rich with the aroma of raisins and plums.
For summer, there are five hefeweizens available, with three on draft and two in bottles. The liter-sized glasses are a hit with those looking for the Oktoberfest vibe, but one friend has a simple complaint: "If you don't have a place to sit, you're holding a heavy glass of beer"; a full one weighs about 5 1/2 pounds.
On your plate: The hearty German menu starts with warm laugenbrezel (rolls made from pretzel dough), served with spicy mustard and cubes of cheese. The stars of the show are the wurst platters. (The pretzel rolls come from Arlington's Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe; a family-run shop in Baltimore supplies the sausages.)
Price points: Expect to pay about $7 for most half-liter glasses and about $12 for a one-liter mug. Bottled beers, most of which are half-liters, are $7 to $14. Sausage platters and meat and cheese platters start at $13. Larger dishes cost $17 to $22.
Need to know: All tables are first-come, first-seated. The only way to reserve tables is to come with a group of 20 or more; visit the bar's Web site for more information.