Beer gardens growing in Southern California, with a twist
Lederhosen aren’t required, but new German-influenced beer gardens are popping up in Southern California.
A few are closely patterned after the traditional biergartens that originated in 19th century Bavaria to serve plebeian brews in outdoor settings.
But many of the establishments in the Los Angeles area have interpreted old-fashioned beer gardens through the prism of local diversity and hipness. They serve a variety of foods, including Asian fusion, and microbrews that are hardly populist.
Even the downtown Standard hotel — a destination for hipsters — opened a beer garden on its roof this month, featuring blond woods and servers with T-shirts screen-printed to resemble the suspenders of traditional lederhosen and the blouses of dirndl costumes.
“At the Standard, the beer garden may seem sleek, but it’s also really both authentic and rather simple, if not rustic,” said hotel owner Andre Balazs, who had already put a beer garden in his Standard in New York.
The fare at the Standard bar might include traditional items such as sausages, pretzels and strudel, but they were planned by chef Kurt Gutenbrunner, a favorite with New York foodies.
The real attraction of beer gardens, no matter what they serve, could be the outdoor, convivial setting.
“The whole spirit of the European beer garden is very much of community and playfulness,” Balazs said. “It’s an experience that’s translatable everywhere.”
Nima Samadi, a restaurant analyst with IBISWorld in Santa Monica, said the rising popularity of beer gardens could be a backlash against the established bar scene.
“People at this point are kind of sick of the traditional sports bar concept,” Samadi said, “where they’d just focus on the TV.”
Other recently opened local beer gardens include Steingarten LA in Rancho Park, which claims to be “California-inspired” with its locally grown ingredients. Rock & Brews in El Segundo — co-owned by former Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead tour manager Dave Furano and restaurateur Michael Zislis — is decked out like the backstage of a concert.
Verdugo Bar in Glassell Park has an open-air area that attracts a very Los Angeles phenomenon — food trucks. And at the beer garden that was open for the summer on a patio outside of Chaya in downtown L.A., the food choices included yakitori.
Also this summer, temporary beer gardens popped up on five separate occasions in locales including Hollywood and along the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. They were organized by local craft brew makers who banded together under the title ColLAboration.
They say their efforts drew more than 6,500 customers, and they’re planning a final event for the year on Dec. 3 at Golden Road Brewing in Atwater Village.
None of these events tried to replicate the tented Oktoberfest attractions often associated with beer gardens in this country.
“Beer gardens are usually thought of in the beer geek community as a tourist attraction rather than a real beer destination,” said Matt Simpson, owner of consulting firm Beer Sommelier in Atlanta. “The general impression is that they don’t have a great beer selection.”
The serving of craft beers marks another divergence with traditional German beer gardens.
“What we’re doing with craft beer in America is 100% American innovation,” said Brandon Hernandez, a columnist in San Diego for Celebrator Beer News. “It’s interesting to see the different variations.”
Dusseldorf, Germany, native Bjoern Risse serves 35 different brews at his Wirtshaus beer garden, which opened three months ago in Los Angeles. His food offerings — including Bavarian pretzels, apple strudel and a multitude of wursts — are more fixed in tradition.
“I was craving German food and atmosphere,” Risse said. “In L.A., I missed that. There were patios and hot dog places with German names, but they weren’t really beer gardens.”
Although a new restaurant in Koreatown is named Biergarten, it took perhaps the most liberties with the concept. The menu includes burgers and Asian fusion fare, and there is not even outdoor seating.
The owner, Neil Kwon, discovered beer gardens while backpacking through Europe after college, said his sister, Ann Kwon, who manages Biergarten.
The name is an homage to the places he enjoyed while traveling, and also helps ride the wave of popularity of beer gardens.
“It’s not true German food, more German-influenced,” Ann Kwon said. “We just needed to stand out from all the typical Koreatown businesses.”
Long before beer gardens got hot in Southern California, Swiss native Stefan Bacofner started one nearly a decade ago at On the Waterfront Cafe on the Venice boardwalk. His establishment, plus the Red Lion Tavern in Silverlake and a handful of others, kept the tradition alive.
Bacofner expressed no resentment toward the upstarts. He said beer gardens go perfectly with local life.
“Americans do tailgating and Europeans do beer gardens,” Bacofner said. “But because it’s always beautiful here, we basically have Oktoberfest all year round.”
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