HOBOKEN, N.J. — Tall candles and the glow they cast on customers and their glass steins are, in the later hours, a charming light source at Pilsener Haus. Waitresses costumed as beer wenches flit between long wooden tables. Drinks flow, voices roar, and chickens roast on spits in the grill area. For a second, the beer hall feels like it could have existed in Medieval Bavaria. But then the band shifts into a furious cover of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” and you’re jolted back to modern time.
Pilsener Haus & Biergarten opened in 2011 on the ground floor of an abandoned factory that once mass-produced belts. Andy Ivanov, who is Slovakian and the majority owner of the beer hall, spent two years refurbishing the factory and outfitting it with exposed brick, lofty ceilings, frosty windows, German and Czech phrases painted on walls, a railing from a train station in Prague, wood tables and shutters from an old Pennsylvania whiskey distillery, and more. Spread among the small hall, great hall, and outdoor porch, some 400 people can drink (and eat) in Pilsener Haus. There are 21 beers on tap, varying seasonally, all but a few from Europe. And this biergarten has the food to match its drink.
By the time Thomas Ferlesch, the Vienna-born chef, was 24, he had earned a four-star review from The New York Times for his cooking at Vienna ’79. Thirty years later, he still sets a high bar. “I don’t look at Pilsener Haus as a biergarten,” Ferlesch says. “I look at it as a restaurant. People want to eat good food regardless of where they go.”
The halls are perfumed with the scent of grilled meats. Bratwurst, jalapeno frankfurters, chicken sausages, and smoked kielbasa sizzle by the score until their skins char and crisp, the flaky exteriors giving way to softness. One sausage, the weisswurst (made with veal, leeks, and parsley) is boiled as in the Bavarian tradition. Each of these meats comes with lively sauerkraut.
But first: the soft pretzel, a butter-brushed colossus that comes with mustard and Liptauer, a Hungarian dip of farmers’ cheese and paprika. Then, calamari with kielbasa slivers, all sea and smoke, a dish showing how strong opposites can attract.
Sauerbraten hits a memorable note. For the dish, beef shoulder is marinated for a week in red wine, red wine vinegar, juniper berries, and root vegetables, then braised in the mixture enhanced with apple cider. The beef flakes with the touch of a fork. Pearl onions, Brussels sprouts, and red cabbage provide foils to the rich meat. Similarly, wiener schnitzel is bright with lingonberry sauce, cucumber salad, and a dash of lemon.
At this point in a meal, the polka, blues, rock, or gypsy jazz is getting louder, candle flames dance, liter number two arrives. Perhaps it’s Paulaner Salvator — a coppery brew from Munich — or a Gaffel Kolsch from Cologne. Most drafts come from Germany, Austria, Belgium, or the Czech Republic. “We started with an almost strictly European selection,” Ivanov says. “But we realized we are in the midst of a craft beer revolution. Now, we serve more domestic beers.”
That said, when in Bavaria, drink beer with names like “Hofbrau” or “Hacker-Pschorr,” especially when Oktoberfest brings new beers, bands, and menus to Pilsener Haus this month. Its most eye-opening beer may be the staple Radler, a witbier fortified with lemon sorbet. The scoop touches your lip with frost, and into your mouth rushes a stream of lush lemony Blanche de Bruxelles.
Ivanov sums up the Pilsener Haus experience: “To spend a lazy afternoon drinking beer,” he says, “you don’t have to travel to Europe.”
Pilsener Haus & Biergarten
1422 Grand St., Hoboken, N.J., 201-683-5465, pilsenerhaus.com.
Chris Malloy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org