It used to be if you wanted to experience an authentic Oktoberfest, you needed to go to a beer hall in Munich, which I have been lucky enough to do. It’s the ultimate communal dining experience that’s as much about the sense of theater as it is about food or, ostensibly, the actual focus of the venue: beer.
First of all, it’s on a grand scale. There are dozens of tables, hundreds of people and servers who, in addition to donning traditional dirndls, are able to carry enough one-liter steins simultaneously that you’d swear they spend their off hours prepping to be Olympic weightlifters.
With decor that dates back hundreds of years, the bench seating without cushions leaves a lot to be desired on the comfort front. It does, however, make it possible for patrons to jump to their feet, hop up on their seats and participate in the revels at the behest of the omnipresent German oompah band. And with the amount of beer consumed, it’s loud and cheery.
Just over a decade ago, Hofbräu brought its first authentic brewhaus and beer hall in the style of the Munich original to our shores. The St. Pete concept is now the eighth in this welcome German invasion. There’s a parking lot adjacent to the Fourth Street location and ample additional parking, for $3, at a garage just a short walk away. As you pass through the entryway under the raised bandstand, rows of locked beer steins flank your path. This is where loyal guests store their own special steins.
As you clear the bandstand, the room opens up to a tall, faux blue-sky ceiling, dotted with cumulus clouds, from which hangs a large, round chandelier with more than two dozen round globes. On the far wall is the fierce head of a bull elk with antlers that make you mighty glad you’re not greeting him in the wild. There’s a second-level arcade that circles the room with groups of arches that provide a private party area, overlooking the happy circus below. Patrons have ear-to-ear smiles as they dance to the accordion and the antics of the spoon player, who uses the posterior of willing, well-lubricated diners for his rhythmic improvisations.
The Hofbräuhaus menu’s hearty Bavarian food is indeed authentic. Depending on your culinary perspective, that’s a mixed bag. There’s plenty of flavor, but much of it is similar. If you love sausages, there are many options, and you’ll be happy. Though the accompaniments are tasty, traditional food from Bavaria is not noted for its lightness. It’s meat-and potatoes heaven, with root vegetables and gravy.
We begin with two appetizer stalwarts. Kartoffelpuffer, four crisp golden-brown potato pancakes served with applesauce and sour cream, and Bayerischer Raditeller, Bavarian white and red radishes with thin slices of buttered rye bread and chives. The pancakes are standard; they’re fine, but don’t stand out. What’s notable about the large German radishes is the almost comical ratio of spiral-cut white veggie to the accompanying rye slices, which are absolutely jam-packed with minced chives. There’s easily 10-parts radish to one-part bread. Oddly, this is the most costly starter. I guess you’ve got to serve huge piles of radish if you’re charging $12.
The entrees cover a range of sausages and roasted meats or breaded cutlets. We settle on weisswurst, Munich’s well-known white sausages made from veal and pork and grilled, rather than poached. They’re a great match with the sweet mustard and fresh-baked pretzel.
Schweinebraten is Bavarian roast pork with a root vegetable garnish, dark beer sauce and both potato and bread dumplings. Like the other entrees, these are simple dishes, well prepared.
Sauerbraten, probably the most famous German dish, is a long-marinaded pot roast, Bavarian-style with red wine, the same veggie strips, homemade spaetzle (tiny egg dumplings) and spicy-sweet red cabbage. It’s a great Wcombination with plentiful portions.
Gebackenes fischfilet is breaded and pan-fried Atlantic cod fillet. The generous portion of golden-brown fish with tartar sauce and lemon is paired with homemade German potato salad. The dish has a nice bite of vinegar, but it’s usually served hot — ours was on the cold side.
In addition to ice cream, Hofbräuhaus wisely limits the dessert menu to versions of Bavarian icons. Imported from Bavaria, apfelstrudel is served served warm with a creamy vanilla sauce. Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte is the famous black forest cake, which alternates layers of chocolate cake laced with kirsch, dark cherries and thick helpings of whipped cream. Both are adequate rather than inspired.
Obviously, the whole enterprise is centered on copious amounts of beer on draft, including Hofbräu’s original lager, the dark dunkel and a hefeweizen. The suds are brewed using 400-year-old recipes handed down by the Duke of Bavaria. I’m more of a wine guy than a beer aficionado, but I enjoyed these accessible, refreshing brews. They are easy on the palate. You may taste from 10-ounce to 34-ounce pours in iconic steins.
This isn’t conventional dining. It is, however, a great environment if you’re looking for a casual evening of boisterous group fun, fueled by Munich’s finest.
Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.