No matter if you live in Sayreville or San Diego, every city has a local watering hole where the bartenders know all of the regulars’ names and a clinging of glasses gives neighbors the chance to catch up.
However, in many parts of Europe, this local watering hole isn’t a bar — it’s a biergarten, or an open, casual space full of long communal tables where people sit next to strangers and drink liters of beer and eat tasty food.
Andy Ivanov of Long Valley, who is from the Czech Republic, grew up with his own friendly neighborhood biergarten, but in the States, he noticed a definitive lack of the drinking spaces. This led him to co-own and co-found Pilsener Haus and Biergarten of Hoboken in 2011 and Asbury Festhalle and Biergarten of Asbury Park in February of this year, some of the first biergartens in the area.
“We grew up drinking beer in Europe and that’s just the culture there. We haven’t discovered the beer — we just built the biergarten and people are responding really positively,” he said. “I kind of discovered the concept for Americans and people jumped in. They love it.”
For hundreds of years, Europeans have headed to local biergartens that range from small activity centers to large-capacity stadiums, where visitors could have a laid-back meal in a simple setting.
“It’s an uncomplicated approach with a social and communal aspect in an open space under a sky full of stars,” said Ivanov.
Judging by the constant line down the block awaiting entrance to Pilsener Haus and Biergarten and Asbury Festhalle and Biergarten, they certainly do love it.
According to Ladislav Sebestyan, business partner of Ivanov and co-owner and co-founder of Pilsener Haus and Biergarten and Asbury Festhalle and Biergarten, biergartens have been growing “like mushrooms.”
“The growth of the biergarten is phenomenal and unprecedented because there are so many people that this appeals to,” he said.
The concept of the biergarten, and beer, certainly is universal — people from 21 to 91 love their beer. However, the simplicity of the biergarten, a factor in its widespread popularity, is more (or maybe less) than a few tables and taps.
Walking into any bar, it’s immediately evident that a good chunk of visitors are busy texting, tweeting or watching TV — which is why Ivanov’s biergartens don’t have any WiFi or televisions.
“A European-style biergarten is something we are starved for in many places because we are very digital now and we are so head-down in our iPhones,” said Jennifer Lampert, co-owner and managing partner of Asbury Festhalle and Biergarten. “The art of conversation is being lost, but when you have to sit next to people you don’t know, there is a different kind of style and service.”
Plus, a biergarten is self-serving for both beer and food, which encourages walking around the spacious establishments. “It’s not a private place for couples, no, not us,” said Sebestyan. “It’s about getting to know people who are neighboring at the same table. It’s kind of coming back to people.”
Biergartens are also much more family friendly than bars as children are welcome and there is room for them to move around. For Hoboken and Asbury Park, two towns that revolve around nightlife, the biergarten provides an outlet for every age in the family.
In order to stay loyal to the classic biergarten concept, establishments also need to stick with the European décor. Ivanov said that presentation and keeping an American biergarten authentic is more than half the game, and his biergartens accomplish that by using authentic signs and hand-painted décor as well as quality food and beer in an old-world, open-air setting.
“There is a tendency for restaurants to want to call themselves biergartens because they have outdoor space,” Lampert said. “Beer garden, maybe, but to me, the whole execution, in the true sense, you would have main import beers and a menu that reflects the concept as well as traditional dishes. That’s what makes us different.”
At Pilsener Haus and Biergarten, in a 10,000-square-foot 1920s-era building, sunlight pours through the floor-to-ceiling iron-worked windows onto the 15-foot wooden tables, surrounded by oversized vintage photographs and two grills constantly ruminating with the scents of sizzling meats.
Asbury Festhalle, with a 6,000-square-foot indoor bier hall and 9,000-square-foot rooftop biergarten, offers similar authentic décor as well as views of Wesley Lake and Ocean Grove.
There are some differences between Ivanov’s biergartens and classic European biergartens, however. Historically, people brought their own food to their local biergartens, but Ivanov’s in New Jersey offer traditional dishes, such as schnitzels, strudels, goulash, huge Bavarian pretzels, sausages and bratwursts.
The biergartens also mostly stick to the traditional beers of Europe, with 80 percent of their selection being Belgian beers, Czech beers and other central European options.
“In terms of popularity, it goes beer, prezels then bratwurst,” said Lampert.
For the time being, Americans are flocking to biergartens and they can’t get enough of this new-to-them trend, where they can unplug, meet new people and enjoy quality brews. However, will it last?
“It’s a proven concept that hasn’t stopped in Europe and I don’t think it would ever change. It’s a timeless concept,” said Lampert. “It’s not brand new, but it is coming to America now. We haven’t done anything else besides copy a timeless concept. We’re just figuring it out.”
NEW JERSEY’S BIERGARTENS
Pilsener Haus and Biergarten: 1422 Grand St., Hoboken. 201-683-5465; pilsenerhaus.com
Asbury Festhalle and Biergarten: 527 Lake Ave., Asbury Park. 732-997-8767; asburybiergarten.com
Zeppelin Restaurant and Biergarten: 88 Liberty View Drive, Jersey City. 201-721-8888; zeppelinhall.com