America's Best Beer Gardens
Philadelphia-based Stephen Starr oversees an empire of more than 20 restaurants that includes high-end Buddakan and Morimoto. Not one to be left out of a trend, though, he opened a different kind of establishment earlier this year—a beer garden.
We’re officially in the midst of an American beer revival, with beer gardens flourishing and more domestic breweries than at any time since Prohibition (1,595 as of 2009). No longer do you have to travel abroad to spend a lazy afternoon at a beer garden. You can find both hip and traditional options from L.A. to beer-centric Philadelphia.
Let’s give a hearty willkommen to this beer garden trend, which has been a long time coming. In the early 20th century, U.S. towns or cities with large German or Eastern European immigrant communities supported hundreds of beer gardens. But anti-German sentiment after World War I along with Prohibition dried up beer culture in America. Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Queens, NY, and Mecklenburg Gardens in Cincinnati were among the few survivors.
Now restaurateurs like Starr and chefs like Kurt Gutenbrunner are among those launching a new generation of beer gardens. “The challenge for proprietors is to not make beer gardens gimmicky or ironic,” says Andy Crouch, author of Great American Craft Beer: A Guide to the Nation’s Finest Beer and Breweries. “The best beer gardens are much simpler affairs, well-kept outdoor spaces where friends can gather and enjoy beer, preferably surrounded by nature.”
San Diego’s Stone Brewing Co. exemplifies this philosophy. Its owners took the term beer garden quite literally, planting pine, elm, and olive trees, creating a koi pond, and installing tables with umbrellas. The result is a tranquil one-acre spot for sampling some of the 36 craft beers on tap.
Like the rest of America’s best beer gardens, Stone Brewing Co. is a natural venue for celebrating during Oktoberfest—or at any time of year, thanks to modern improvements like heat lamps and retractable roofs. Read on to find a beer garden near you, along with suggestions for which suds should fill your mug.
Founded in 1865, Mecklenburg Gardens is the oldest continually running restaurant and beer garden in this very German city. Co-owner Annamarie Harten says that it was also initially a learning institution: “When Mecklenburg Gardens was first opened, German immigrants would assemble in the garden and learn about the American political processes and hold mock elections.” There’s no more voting—just lots of beer imbibing in the garden underneath lovely 100-year-old grape vines.
Suds: Fifteen German and American craft beers on tap and 80 by bottle. Beer from $4.50.
StandardBiergarten, New York City
The crowd at this beer garden is trendier than usual thanks to its Meatpacking District location below the High Line and adjacent to the Standard Hotel. But the setup is traditionally Teutonic: buy beer and food tickets at the entry, order from the bar, and squeeze in at one of the communal tables (within range of the ping pong tables). Michelin-starred Austrian chef Kurt Gutenbrunner designed the menu of plump grilled sausages, currywurst, and oversize pretzels.
Suds: The few beers on tap are great German selections. The dark, caramel-like Köstritzer pairs well with classic Bavarian weisswurst sausage. Beer from $7.
This South Beach beer garden may go by the famous Hofbrau moniker—named after the granddaddy of all beer-centric drinking spots in Munich—but the scene here has as much beach in it as it does Bavaria. Opened in 2007, Hofbrau is known as a beer hall, but the 92-seat garden is where to go. Long wooden tables with the classic blue-and-white-checked tablecloths and umbrellas shading the South Beach sun are great for people-watching.
Suds: Five Hofbrau-brand brews on tap, including dark, potent Maibock and a fruity hefeweizen. Beer from $5.
This spacious beer garden was a hit with Mission District denizens long before the neighborhood was anointed cool. “It used to be more of a biker crowd,” says manager Mimi Pajo. “Now, though, there are blue-collar and white-collar types. Some of the old locals complain about it but they keep coming back anyway,” she adds with a smile. Those crowds at the long wooden tables mean you’re certain to make new friends by the end of the night.
Suds: An excellent selection of 49 tap beers that includes many California craft brews: beloved Berkeley brew Trumer Pils and others from San Diego, Humboldt County, Paso Robles, and Santa Rosa. Beer from $4.
Bayou Beer Garden,New Orleans
There’s hardly anything German about the two-year-old Bayou Beer Garden, and that’s perfectly okay—especially when the garden is bedecked with flowers and plants and a waterfall. Reggae and other popular music seeps from the speakers as Mid-City neighborhood folks (especially of the local sports-crazed variety) congregate to discuss the Saints while nursing beers and picking over burgers, sandwiches, and sweet potato fries.
Suds: There are only a small handful of brews on tap—including the local Abita Amber and NOLA Hopitoulas—but the 75 different bottled varieties of beer, from Belgium to Mexico to Estonia, certainly make up for it. Beer from $3.50.
Two native New Englanders with a love of backyard barbecue founded this beer garden, which has won over D.C. locals with its easygoing vibe and aroma of grilling meats. While the most popular item on the menu is the pulled pork sandwich, co-owner Tad Curtz says, “Customers seem to be really loving our sidewalk donut stand where we cook buttermilk donuts right out in the garden.” The garden holds 100 people (there are communal and smaller tables), but look for an expansion very soon.
Suds: Six beers on tap range from the German Hofbrau to the craft North Coast Scrimshaw Pils. Beer from $5.
The Village Tap,Chicago
This 1,000-square-foot, 100-capacity beer garden in Chicago’s Roscoe Village is a homey place to knock back a couple brews year round. Heat lamps, an outdoor fireplace, and a retractable roof make sure beer-imbibers stay warm in the winter—as do big portions of Tex-Mex, salads, and burgers.
Suds: Twenty-six beers on tap with an emphasis on American craft brews, such as Baltimore’s Stillwater Brewery, as well as Prague’s hoppy Staropramen and a small selection of Belgian-style ales. Beer from $5.
Brought to you by prolific restaurateur Stephen Starr (Buddakan, Morimoto), Frankford Hall and its 240-seat beer garden were constructed largely from the materials of an abandoned warehouse in the Fishtown neighborhood. After opening so many fine-dining restaurants, Starr explains why he was inspired to open a beer garden: “The beauty of a beer garden is that it’s a social, fun place for people to gather, have a bite and a drink, and enjoy themselves.”
Suds: The nine beers on tap lean toward Germany with a few choice American craft beers, Dogfish Head and Great Lakes rounding out the list. Beer from $6.
Red Lion Tavern,Los Angeles
A fixture of the Silverlake section of Los Angeles since 1959, this divey German beer garden and tavern is an ever-popular spot for taking in Teutonic eating and drinking culture in southern California. The 40-seat beer garden, formerly the Red Lion’s parking lot, isn’t the biggest garden in the country, but its raucous atmosphere inspires bibulous bursts of good times.
Suds: Ten German beers on tap from Spaten, Warsteiner, Bitburger, Köstritzer, and Hofbrau, plus one monthly featured beer (which is usually of German origins). Beer from $5.
Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens, San Diego
The people at Stone Brewing Co. took the term beer garden quite literally, planting pine, elm, and olive trees and creating a koi pond and large swaths of grass. CEO and co-founder Greg Koch calls the 205-seat garden a “one-acre Shangri-la.” When paired with a pint of beer and dishes like barbecued duck tacos or wild boar baby back ribs, it’s not hard to see why.
Suds: Thirty-six craft beers on tap, including Stone Brewing Co. and other small California brewers, and 80 different bottles, mostly North American and Belgian. Beer from $5.
Bohemian Hall,New York City
Founded in the early 1900s—a heyday of beer gardens filled with Eastern European and German immigrants—this Astoria, Queens, establishment was often referred to as simply “the beer garden” in recent decades because there were so few left. Despite the growing presence of its brethren, this leafy Czech beer garden reigns supreme, with a capacity of about 1,000 people and better-than-average Czech staples like goulash and dumplings on the menu.
Suds: Not-easy-to-find-on-tap Czech beers include the crisp Krusovice and the hoppy Czechvar (the original Czech Budweiser), as well as Pilsner Urquell and a choice selection of Belgian and German beers. Beer from $6.
Old Mill Stream Inn, St. Charles, MO
In a historic town about 30 minutes west of St. Louis—an area that really knows its brews—this beer garden and restaurant is popular for its large bottled selection and its signature Millfries, peeled and deep-fried whole baby potatoes. A soothing waterfall that flows nearby adds to the setting’s appeal.
Suds: Nothing on tap, but more than 100 different bottles, most of which come from small North American breweries. Try the Rogue Morimoto Soba Ale, made from roasted soba. Beer from $4.