Hofbräu Bierhaus had been open for three weeks when some friends and I decided to drop by for dinner and a few brews around 6:30 on a rainy Tuesday evening. The scene was already tumultuous: every cranny crammed with guys in a complete state of dishabille—ties flung over shoulders, elbows resting in puddles of beer, giving wild-eyed looks as they leaped up to offer toasts. Unable to make myself heard above the din, I whipped out my decibel meter—a phone app perhaps not perfectly calibrated. To my astonishment, the device caromed between 135 and 145 dBs (130 is often referred to as the “threshold of pain”). No matter how much you like the suds or the food at the Bierhäus, you’ll never be able to get away from that unearthly noise, which is like being strapped to a stack of Marshalls.
Munich’s Hofbräu—the state-owned brewery founded by the Duke of Bavaria in 1589—has established a New York outpost just east of Grand Central Station. The company was a pioneer in using unadulterated local and natural ingredients in brewing, and its famous, 33,000-square-foot beer garden was frequented over the centuries by the likes of Mozart, Ibsen, Lenin, and Hitler—who held Nazi Party rallies there. Somewhat more recently, Hofbräu has franchised drinking and eating establishments in Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee, making our own place appear an American afterthought.
The beer hall occupies the sky-lit upper floor of a two-story building, outfitted with long communal tables, blue-and-white Bavarian pennants, a 50-foot balcony overlooking Third Avenue, and baroque woodwork that might remind you of the witch’s cottage in Hansel und Gretel. A bar at one end offers five beers from a shifting roster of Hofbräu products—currently lager, dunkel (“dark”) lager, hefeweizen, dunkelweizen, and bock—made according to centuries-old recipes. The bock, at least, is damn good. Once we managed to wedge our party onto the crowded benches, our waitress approached wearing a dirndl and ruffled blouse. Her massive eye-level cleavage as she bent over to shout caused my guests to squirm. “You can’t look away,” a female friend from Florida complained.
The menu she handed us was extensive. While the beers seemed expensive at $8 per half-liter stein, the food was remarkably cheap given the size of the portions. Unfortunately, much of it was awful, with a frozen-and-reheated taste that explained how the menu manages to be so ambitious. Sausages seemed like the best choice, and we made a beeline for those. The wurst sampler ($24) featured a bratwurst, bauernwurst (mustard-laced beef-pork blend), Käsekrainer (garlicky pork studded with cheese), and, odd man out, Cajun andouille, which is the only really spicy thing on the menu. The sides, though voluminous, proved disappointing: two scoops of vinegary German potato salad sans bacon (WTF!), a heap of steamed red cabbage, and a tangle of very, very sour sauerkraut.
Several other sausages were available, each presented in multiples and occupying its own platter, including a trio of transcendent “wieners” ($13)—pale pink links that, as the name implies, supposedly originated in Vienna. They put Nathan’s to shame. But once again, the sides ended up getting left on the plate. Other things we didn’t hate included a giant homemade pretzel ($9) offered with sweet or spicy mustard, and a charcuterie platter flaunting several types of ham and salami, so neatly rolled up we thought of barging into the kitchen and asking the prep cook to make a fatty for us. Another comparative triumph was the jaegerschnitzel à la Holstein ($21)—a pair of breaded pork cutlets topped with bacon and a runny fried egg.
But the litany of culinary failures was even more extensive: fried sauerkraut balls that succeeded in being mainly starchy; a sauerbraten platter holding dry pucks of beef, with none of the tartness implied by the name; a sautéed vegetable mélange tasting of dodgy fat and dried oregano; and a flavorless cucumber salad so damp it should have been wrung out like a mop prior to serving. The desserts, however, were exceptional. We liked the apple strudel ($8) served with ice cream. Warm and flaky, it had never seen the inside of a microwave. The Bavarian cream—a round, pleasant cream puff—was also top-notch. As we polished it off and turned to revisit our mugs of beer, a pal groused, “These desserts are about the last thing you’d want to wash down with bock.”