Sometimes the waiting is the hardest part. Cutting through red tape and getting local politicians onboard for a new venture could cost many young entrepreneurs the chance of a lifetime.
It may’ve taken three motivated European immigrants two-and-a-half years to finally get clearance for Hoboken’s first ever biergarten but it has proved to be a resounding success. Fashioned after authentic pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian bistros, yet easily mistaken for a bustling German beer hall, the generically-named Pilsener Haus & Biergarten is anything but pedestrian, taking up 10,000 square feet of a factory warehouse in the underdeveloped and roomy northwest corridor of this mile square city on the Hudson, the fabulously newfangled venue cornering Grand Street and 15th Street pairs international craft beers with deliciously omnivorous charcuterian cuisine in an Old World setting.
Situated in a rustic red-bricked millhouse, Pilsener Haus & Biergarten’s capacious first floor space features a cafeteria-styled dining area with high ceiling, cement floor, exposed pipes, iron-worked windows, 15-foot wooden communal tables and an open kitchen adjacent to a smaller sky lighted wintergarten just off the nine-tabled, tree-shaded, corridor-like biergarten. On my inaugural visitation, the echo-drenched cafeteria section got packed to the hilt on what’s usually a slow night: Tuesday.
While getting this premier beer haven off the ground was no easy task, to make matters worse, its Aug. 9 grand opening ribbon cutting ceremony got postponed due to a flood that temporarily drenched the floors. Notwithstanding the chaotic deluge, the resilient Pilsener Haus survived the storm and never looked back. In fact, there was a line around the block for the belated 7 o’clock opening that same evening.
“The mayor and some local councilmen were supposed to be there for the ribbon cutting, but they couldn’t wait out the storm due to other commitments,” co-owner Ladislav Sebestyan says as we settle in before supper time beckons.
A friendly Czech Republic native now residing in Secaucus, Ladi boasts about his homeland’s beer consumption (topping Germany for most guzzling per capita), then shares information pertaining to the architectural design, construction and objective of Pilsener Haus.
“We wanted to create an unpretentious European biergarten that showed off the heritage of 1920s Austrian, Hungarian and Czechoslovakian empires,” Ladi informs. “There’s random signage and a Europa Film Festival emblem that stress the authenticity Czech designer Jirka Kolar captured. We looked in Jersey City, even Morristown, to get the biergarten off the ground. But we knew this space we now occupy would work well. It’s not necessarily a neighborhood bar though we’re within walking distance of the pier. However, we wanted to create a ‘Destination Bar’ that not only targets Hoboken, but also all of New Jersey. We have a ferry a few blocks away. People come in from Manhattan. Ultimately, we couldn’t get the expanse we needed on Washington Street’s main drag due to noise ordinances and the lack of outside space.”
The nearby Holland and Lincoln Tunnel both offer high traffic concentration for this amiable destination. And since there’s a high concentration of second and third generation Euro-Americans in the nearby vicinity, the curiosity factor ought to bring in lots of inquiring beer enthusiasts.
“Naturally, I have a high interest in beer. When I reached the legal age, 18, I developed a taste. At the time, my favorite beer was Gambrinus 10°. I like the lightest degree beer they made. It’s less hearty, not as dry, the color’s paler, and the spicing is lower,” Ladi says.
Presently, there are three individual tap stations with seven separate tap handles in the main cafeteria beer hall. Though each tap serves strictly European fare, that’ll eventually change to reflect the prevailing popularity of new-sprung American microbrews (available only in bottle onsite). Today’s menu consists of such Euro faves as Czech Republic’s Krusovice Imperial Pils, Austria’s Stiegl Lager, Belgium’s Lefebvre Blanche de Bruxelle, plus Germany’s highly touted Franziskaner Dunkel Weisse and Paulaner Salvator Double Bock. Fine Italian, German, French and Argentinean wines sidle American vino from Oregon and California. And several peculiar cocktails will whet the whistle of adventurous patrons.
To match the impressive array of liquids are several standard European dishes, such as Polish kielbasa, bratwurst, veal sausage, smoked pork, jalapeno-cheddar frankfurters and Munich Fest’s signature staple, rotisserie chicken. Experienced Viennese bistro chef, Thomas Ferlesch, who had gained renown overseas before heading Café des Artistes in his adopted New York City hometown, keeps the main kitchen going. An avid Austrian gardener, Ferlesch hooked up with Pilsener Haus after spending a few years running Fort Greene, Brooklyn’s premier Thomas Beisl.
Ironically, just as Pilsener Haus endured zoning struggles and compliance restrictions (including a provision necessitating a side entrance exactly 500 feet from the nearest alcohol-related venue), I had to fight heavier-than-usual Route 3 traffic and weather a minor earthquake prior to my initial Aug. 23 sojourn. Happily, unlike the rest of Hoboken, parking is wide open. There are a few business types at the main bar as I arrive pre-dinner. By 8 p.m., my once-empty table filled up with a cute couple celebrating their 2nd anniversary, a former councilman from my hometown, local workers and Ladi’s fellow Czech partner, Andi Ivanov.
Andi co-founded Williamsburg’s flourishing Radegast Hall & Biergarten in Brooklyn, the archetype for this fresh Hoboken hotspot. Though not restricted to any one beer, he claims Weihenstaphaner Hefeweiss as his favorite elixir.
“Both Radegast and Pilsener Haus try to bring a unique product, ambience and design to the public,” Andi claims as we share the approachable, citric-fizzed German lager, Argo Zwickel. “We hope people appreciate the place. Hoboken was hungry, thirsty and knew it was ready to change approach. We took a less predictable twist offering something exciting. Not everyone could create something new.”
He’s right. The general business climate in Jersey is restrictive, prohibiting modernization due to antiquated regulations that denigrate innovative ventures, especially in the beer industry. But the collective spirit enlivening brewpubs, microbreweries and beer havens could be felt all over the state in the past decade. In fact, there are developmental plans in the works for a Hoboken microbrewery that’d hopefully parallel the success of Pilsener Haus.
“We’d like to be more spacious outside. We asked our neighbor if we could expand the biergarten to his adjoining space if he’d sell,” Andi shares. “But we think the place is perfect. Our closest competitor is Jersey City’s two-year-old Zeppelin Hall Biergarten at Liberty Harbor. They own the 30,000 square foot residential building they occupy. But Zeppelin’s closer to a giant sportsbar with TVs.”
As I chow down the mouth-watering Chicken Paprikash (braised poultry in paprika with lemon zest, sour cream and spaetzle potatoes), Andi returns with the easygoing, pale-malted, citric-dried, mineral-grained Augustiner Edelstoff, a clear-yellowed Munich-styled premium beer the blonde-haired entrepreneur demandingly exclaims “cannot be underestimate!” The loud crowd drowns out the Bavarian music, but the beers and food are addictive and the feel good atmosphere contagious.
Furthermore, Pilsener Haus will begin showcasing local Tri-State talent. A New Orleans-styled brass band is set to play tomorrow evening. Though there’s nary a TV to be found presently, Andi admits they’d use their projection screen to show Yankees playoff games instead of black & white silent films for the interim.
“Our landlord is very supportive,” Andi concludes. “There was construction getting done upstairs while our renovation took place. So we didn’t bother many workers with all the noise.”
Just as Maxwell’s defines Hoboken’s indie rock music scene, Pilsener Haus illustrates the necessity for a true craft beer watering hole in the land where Frank Sinatra was born.