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These beer halls serve bier


When we're in uncharted territory and looking for food and beer of substance, we often seek hints from something as simple as an establishment's name.

german postcard

Monk's Café (Philadelphia), Toronado (San Francisco) and the Old Bay Restaurant (New Brunswick, N.J.) have well-deserved reputations as beer joints, but when you run your fingers through the Yellow Pages, those names hardly standout. On the other hand, try saying these out loud: Die Bierstube . . . Der Rathskeller . . . Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit . . .

Thirsty yet?

German restaurants are everywhere, as Marikkas German Restaurant in Lexington, Ky., Bavarian Grill in Plano, Texas, and Felsen Haus in Phoenix illustrate. They've even flourished in cities best known for craft beer -- Suppenkuche in San Francisco and Gustav's Bier Stube in Portland, Ore., come to mind. But, naturally, you're going to find most German restaurants in places where German immigrants settled, and, although there are pockets in Texas, New York and elsewhere, the largest concentration of German-Americans is in the Heartland.

Chicago has long been a bastion for German beer. The Brauhaus serves up live music six nights a week plus weekend afternoons.

Although the Midwest had to wait longer for the American craft beer renaissance to arrive than did most of the rest of the country, we always had reliable German restaurants that served quality beer. In fact, the abundance of quality lagers may have slowed the ale-driven craft movement. It's not like in Colorado, where Tabernash Brewing faced an anti-lager bias when it introduced lagers to microbrew drinkers. "They view lagers as bland, something they want to move away from," said partner Jeff Mendel. Tabernash entered the Chicago market last spring and immediately found plenty of customers.

As central Illinoisans until recently, we were totally spoiled. It was less than a 10-minute drive to the Rat'skeller in Washington. The basement pub offers a half dozen German beers on tap, served in large ceramic mugs filled to the top rather than the half-liter mark. Tubas and other musical instruments share wall and ceiling space with hundreds more mugs and one particularly impressive boar's head near the entrance. One late winter evening, when TV sets in bars throughout the area featured NCAA basketball games, we sat and watched a videotape of a popular German variety show. No subtitles? No problem; order another stein.

Unfortunately, when the Rat'skeller remodeled, it stopped serving food. This wasn't really a problem, however, because the Peoria Hofbrau is just a few miles away, across the Illinois River. Not only does the Hofbrau have a vast and varied bottle selection and German beers on draft, but the food is way above typical tavern fare. During the fall and winter, wild game is a specialty, while regular menu items include seafood, schnitzels, wursts and rouladen. To say the Hofbrau is popular is an understatement: the around-the-world beer club numbers in the hundreds, and the small place gets extremely cozy on weekends.

Chicago has long been a bastion for German beer. Laschet's and Resi's Bierstube are practically across from one another on Irving Park Road, and it's not far up Lincoln Avenue to Chicago Brauhaus. The Brauhaus is the kind of place where people still drink alcoholic beverages during lunch. Its 1960s furnishings are immaculately kept, and the soothing, dim lighting makes everything look rosy even before you start drinking. The Brauhaus features live music six nights a week and on weekend afternoons, as well. Traditional German favorites on the menu include items you may be unfamiliar with, but they're bound to be delicious.

A bit to the south, Zum Deutschen Eck ("the German corner") has grown from a corner bar into a Bavarian chalet that occupies nearly a full block. The bar itself is handcrafted of solid oak, and the bar area is decorated with stained glass cartoons of German lore and sayings. Like most German restaurants, it stocks a full assortment of German liquors such as Goldwasser, Edelkirsch, Himbergeist and the always-dangerous Jagermeiser.

They hoist steins in small Illinois towns, too. The Gardner Haus Inn in Gardner (population 1,200) about 60 miles southwest of Chicago's Loop, always has fresh Spaten on tap, an extensive bottle selection and terrific food (the red cabbage equals that dish anywhere), while Bayern Stube in Gibson City (population 3,300) regularly draws patrons from all over east-central Illinois. As in many German establishments, animal heads festoon the Bayern Stube bar walls, and there's even a turkey mount.

The waitresses here wear dirndls and members of the oompah bands sport lederhosen for the same reason beer is still served in steins with metal lids: This is how families have turned dinner into a full evening of entertainment for years.

Wisconsin and Minnesota have huge German-American populations and the restaurants to prove it. In Minneapolis, Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit features several dining rooms with different themes (one for the Alps, for instance), Bavarian scenes painted on the walls and traditional German proverbs carved into the ceiling beams. While places like this may seem a bit Disneyesque, these aren't re-creations of something from the past, like, say, the faux-German town of Leavenworth, Wash. The waitresses here wear dirndls and members of the oompah bands sport lederhosen for the same reason beer is still served in steins with metal lids: This is how families have turned dinner into a full evening of entertainment for 20, 30, even 60 years.

Milwaukee has two of the country's most famous German restaurants, Mader's and Karl Ratzsch's. Although both serve German cuisine that's on the pricey side, you likely won't find any better. In beer-savvy Madison, 60 miles to the west, even the student union (its pub is called Der Rathskeller) serves German beer on tap. Nobody pours more than the Essen Haus, though; the restaurant claims to serve more German draft beer than any place in the country. Don't be surprised if you see patrons climbing on the furniture to retrieve their personal ceramic mugs, which hang about everywhere here. Wisconsin is the Badger State, and the university team the Badgers, so badgers adorn many business establishments. On Essen Haus T-shirts the badger is especially natty, dressed in lederhosen and hat and hefting a stein. Elsewhere in the Midwest, you'll find the country's most impressive Oktoberfest in "Zinzinnati" and the historic German Village in Columbus, and these are just the tip of the German-American iceberg in Ohio. More than half of Cincinnati's population has German ancestry.

Up in Michigan, Detroit's Dakota Inn Rathskeller has barely changed since Karl and Katherine Kurz converted a laundromat into a restaurant in 1933. The Kurzes' son and daughter ran the Dakota for years, and since 1986, grandson Karl Kurz has been in charge. "Through the years, we'll pick one of the rooms and we'll just work on one area during the summer or slow months or during our vacation," Karl the grandson said. As a result, the place looks new and old at the same time. A friend of Karl and Katherine Kurz painted the murals on the walls, which depict the German towns the Kurzes came from.

The Dakota Inn emphasizes food today more than it did when it was primarily a watering hole for students and faculty from Wayne State and the University of Detroit. Some of the menu items, like potato pancakes ($2.95 for three, $6.95 for nine) and sauerbraten have been around since the inn opened. Others, such as the Reuben Soup topped with Swiss cheese and croutons, are newer. One of the specials is Eisbein, or pig hocks. Sides include German potato salad, spaetzle and sauerkraut.

Though most of these places have separate bars, and we've put our elbows on a few of them, we think of them first as restaurants. That's why you'll find us in line with everybody else on a weekday night to get a table at the Black Forest Inn in Minneapolis, listening to background music that includes the top tunes from 100 years ago and earlier. Beer reps have loved hanging out here for more than 30 years, not because of the huge Richard Avedon photo on one wall or the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed windows but because the 16 taps pour Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner and Spaten beers as well as regional favorites Schell and Summit.

The best seats are in the beer garden, which is voted best in the Twin Cities every year, but any place they'll bring you food is acceptable. Everyday items include the Hausplatte (sauerbraten aspic, rippchen, bratwurst and Polish sausage served with red cabbage, sauerkraut and potato salad) and Hasenpfeffer (German-style rabbit). The dessert menu features four different tortes; the Black Forest torte is a triple-layered chocolate cake with cream cheese filling and cherries between the layers and a whipped cream frosting.

One other non-Midwestern place bears special mention: the Student Prince in Springfield, Mass. The Student Prince Café opened in 1935 on the site where a fort was first built in 1660 to defend the Springfield settlement. The Fort began serving food in 1946, and features stained glass windows crafted by German artisans who had settled in New Jersey. It has a separate entrance but direct access to the Student Prince.

While the restaurant has received plenty of attention for its stein collection, regulars come back for the four Spaten beers on tap and the fine schnitzels and sausages. About 20 steins decorated the bar at the Student Prince in 1935, but now the collection has grown so large that no one knows how many there are. They number in the thousands. Twice a year, a group of trusted employees hand-washes the collection.

We look forward to being their for spring cleaning one of these years, Maibock in hand.

Bayern Stube
209 N. Sangamon, Gibson City, Ill.

Black Forest Inn
1 E. 26th St., Minneapolis, Minn.

Chicago Brauhaus
4732 N. Lincoln, Chicago, Ill.

Dakota Inn Rathskeller
17324 John R, Detroit, Mich.

Die Bierstube
42 Kansas St., Frankfort, Ill.

Essen Haus
514 E. Wilson, Madison, Wis.

Gardner Haus Inn
126 Depot St,, Gardner, Ill.

Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit
2300 University SE, Minneapolis, Minn.

Hofbrau Restaurant
2210 E. Jefferson, Peoria, Ill.

Karl Ratzsch's
320 E. Mason St., Milwaukee, Wis.

2119 W. Irving Park Road, Chicago, Ill.

1041 N. Third St., Milwaukee, Wis.

103 Washington Square, Washington, Ill.

Resi's Bierstube
2034 W. Irving Park Road, Chicago, Ill.

Student Prince Café
8 Fort St., Springfield, Mass.

Zum Deutschen Eck
2924 N. Southport, Chicago, Ill.

This story orginally appeared in All About Beer Magazine in May 1998.


More fine choices
- Corner bars
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- Irish pubs
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