Beer gardens were how city people survived the heat back before air conditioning. Fleeing a stifling apartment for camaraderie and coolness on a hot night, you could have a bite to eat, lift a stein or two, maybe join in some singing and get ready for the next day on the line at the slaughterhouse.
Even in hot, humid Cincinnati, al fresco dining has become popular, but what about beer gardens? Do German restaurants have them any more? To find out, I turn to my trusty CityBeat Dining Guide where I consult the listings for German restaurants. There are just a handful and telephone inquiries reveal only a few feature outdoor dining areas.
I start with the newest: Kreimer's Bier Haus, across from The Precinct in Columbia-Tusculum. Green plastic tables and chairs are scattered across a newly paved patio, surrounded by a handsome iron fence. Shrubs soften the fencing, but there is no shade overhead. On a spring evening the sun is welcoming, but by full summer, slather on the sunblock. And the noise from Delta Avenue can distract from conversation if your table is on the street side of the garden.
I guess some German restaurants are more German than others, because -- despite its name -- Kreimer's Bier Haus has only one German item on the menu. The Sauerkraut Balls ($5.50 ), while rather bready and overdone, are served with pungent mustard. Mock-Turtle Soup ($1.90, $2.75), an old Cincinnati tradition that's not really German, is also offered. They supposedly have more ethnic specials, but they're not in evidence when I am there. Other items range from the New York Strip Steak ($15.95) to the Fish Log ($11.95), a deep-fried piece of cod smothered in bacon bits and cheddar cheese. So much for an authentic German beer garden. And the beer isn't even German.
The choice of beers is no more Teutonic in Covington's MainStrasse, where I trek to the Strasse Haus. Here, at least, the proprietors give a nod to German food with their offerings of brats and metts, as well as traditional bar food such as nachos and chicken wings. The obligatory Sauerkraut Balls, ($4.75) make their appearance, as do Potato Pancakes (95 cents for one, $2.25 with applesauce as an appetizer).
"No shoes, no kilt, no service." We ponder this sign on the wall while waiting for our food. Lederhosen I could understand, but kilts? Looking around, I realize that this beer garden is really an outdoor sports bar, minus the big screen TV and team memorabilia. Green plastic chairs surround mosaic-topped tables on a wooden deck tented with a plastic tarpaulin, and we enjoy a steady breeze blowing in from Main Street. After a stein or two, my companion remarks that this place has a certain charm of its own. I agree. Maybe a beer garden is really just a state of mind.
Mecklenburg Gardens puts my mind at rest. Here, in Corryville, is a beer garden straight out of Hollywood. They could refilm Cabaret here. Ancient grapevines crisscross above a paved patio within the latticed walls of a century-old garden. The restaurant and beer garden have been around since 1865, and you think, "This is the real thing." But is it?
Yes, Potato Pancakes ($4.50) and Sauerkraut Balls ($3.95) as well as Bavarian Lentil Soup ($2.25, $3.50) are served, but what self-respecting German restaurant would offer Pesto Chicken ($6.50) and Portabello ($5.95) sandwiches? Okay, they do feature German classics such as Wiener Schnitzel ($14.95) and Sauerbraten ($13.95), but Mecklenburg's throws in the lighter dishes that contemporary diners often prefer. At least here you can find German beers, and there is an extensive wine list with some German and Alsatian vintages represented.
Looking around, I guess this is as close to the real thing I'm going to get in modern-day, air-conditioned Cincinnati. I adjust my dirndl, grab a potato pancake and sit back with a beer. Maybe I'll just join the May Festival Chorus. Or at least do the Chicken Dance at Oktoberfest.
Kreimer's Bier Haus
Go: 3500 Eastern Ave.,
Hours: Kitchen is open 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; closed Monday.
Payment: Major credit cards
Vegetarian Friendliness: Not very.
Go: 630 Main St., Covington
Hours: Kitchen is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Payment: Major credit cards with a $20 minimum.
Vegetarian Friendliness: Surprisingly, some veggie sandwich selections.
Go: 302 E. University Ave., Corryville
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday- Monday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Payment: Major credit cards
Vegetarian Friendliness: Several vegetarian sandwiches and entrées.