MEET THE OLD BOSS, SAME AS THE NEW BOSS
A diamond of an old menu appears here from the classic German-American restaurant Janssen Hofbrau Haus. Operated in New York City from 1898 to some time in the 1960s, it was founded by August Janssen, a real estate mogul and restaurateur (1867-1939). The house slogan, “Janssen Wants To See You!”, no doubt a double-entendre for the harried employees.
New York once had a tradition of German-style eating, a heritage of the substantial influx of German speakers which began in the mid-1800s. Famously, they concentrated in Yorkville on the Upper East Side. A classic product of German Yorkville was Lou Gehrig, for example. Donald Trump’s paternal line descends from New York-area German incomers of the 1800s. For that matter Jacob Astor was a German immigrant albeit of an earlier generation. A significant sub-set was the German Jews, memorably portrayed in Stephen Birmingham’s Our Crowd.
The menu of the Hofbrau seems to have covered many bases in Germanic, and also some American eating, but primarily (from my reading) rendered the metropolitan and hotel cuisine of contemporary Germany and Austro-Hungary. Whether hot dishes or cold, fish-based, game-based, eggs, delicatessen, grills, it had it all. Only the famed Luchow’s had a comparable range of offerings, it appears.
With the onset of WW I the Hofbrau Haus continued despite the sentiment that ran high against German-Americans in the wake of the Belgian invasion and the Lusitania disaster. Overt displays of German ethos, even culinary, were held to a minimum to avoid the charge of siding with”Kaiser Bill”.
Yet Hofbrau Haus’ high-end, international reputation helped it survive the period of anti-German sentiment. The same occurred during the next war. By then the restaurant had relocated to Lexington and 44th street in the still-extant Greybar Building.
It is possible Hofbrau Haus had some connection to the famed German beer hall of similar name, however I’ve not been able to substantiate this.
Even today in 2015 New York hasn’t quite forgotten its German side. There are German restaurants and pubs scattered in Manhattan – one or two are still in Yorkville – and beyond (Staten Island, Queens, notably). A Goethe Institute does its good work in the city albeit at Irving Place, far south of Yorkville.
The Munich Hofbrauhaus I mentioned has a small outpost mid-town, as does Paulaner which brews onsite in a mini-plant in the Bowery. Still, it is probably a safe bet that no German restaurant in New York today and probably few anywhere outside Germany can equal the breadth of Janssen’s menu.
The menu is distinguished by a consciously-imparted ethnic design motif and features scenes from the Teutonic decor of Janssen Hofbrau Haus. The artistic and cultural goals of the owner are expressed well in inimitably baroque language in the handsome, beautifully designed menu-book linked above.
The care of the house extended to its small but carefully chosen and explicated beer list contained in page 9 of the menu. The best saved for last? Today we would say it is a short but well-curated list.
There were four beers described by name, all imports from Germanic places, all draft and amazingly, each from a brewery still in operation. As the menu explains, the restaurant took significant pains to ensure a quality “seidel”, noting that 36 barrels were kept in constant operation with temperature carefully controlled. How beer was shipped then from Central Europe to America is something not easily fathomed but I’d guess the trip took a lot longer than now.
I’d think the (draft) beers were not pasteurized, so how they arrived in a drinkable, let alone ideal, state is hard to understand. The boss beer bar of 1908 may have arranged a way still to ensure a top glass every time. Its critical clientele would have expected no less.
Domestic beers were available too at Hofbrau Haus but not dignified by name – presumably these were local productions, not felt worthy to bracket with great Central European originals. One wonders if cultural pride and the lure of the import made people drink long-traveled beer that was actually inferior to the best New York brewing kettles could offer. We shall never know but in a good-size city one can do this test today and decide for oneself.
Each of the four named beers received a taste note which, if one ignores the puffery on health and doctors’ testimonials, wouldn’t be out of place on BeerAdvocate or any current beer blog.
The description of each shorn of the puffery:
Burger Brau Pilsener [this is the same beer as Pilsner Urquell from the Czech Republic]
Light, bitter, slightly veiled. This is the lightest [meaning in colour] of all beers and contains the smallest amount of alcohol [4.4% ABV then and now, not so shabby actually].
Münchner Hofbrau [this is the modern dunkel, or dark lager of Hofbrauhaus in Munich].
Dark, sweet, creamy. The finest brew in the world.
Nurnberger Tucher Brau
The burgundy of all beers; very dark, creamy and full of character.
Wurzburger Burger Brau
A little lighter in the color than the Munchner,not quite so sweet, and therefore a good medium between Pilsner and Munchner.
Check out these beers on a modern rating service. For the last two beers, the beers in the brewery range today corresponding most closely to the colour and taste for 1908 are pretty similar. Pilsner Urquell is not “veiled” (lightly cloudy) as imported to North America today but some Urquell specially available at the brewery is, so consistency continues there.
Let’s raise a New York cheer – not a Bronx cheer, a real one – for what was an important beer and dining haunt in New York’s Gilded Age. And it’s more proof that beer was always taken seriously by some people in some places – always part of gastronomy, a conclusion that gained currency recently with the success of our 1944 Historic Waldorf Beer Tasting Recreation held recently at Dora Keogh Irish Pub in Toronto.
*Note added August 21, 2015: Please see the comments below of the noted ephemera and menu-collector Henry Voigt stating that the menu in fact dates from 1934, despite bearing a copyright notice of 1908. On page 7 of the menu we read “Ten years ago…the doors of the Hofbrau Haus were first opened to the public”. As it opened in 1898, this, plus the curator’s notice Henry Voigt referred to, convinced me initially that the menu is a 1908 original but in fact this appears not the case. Many thanks to Henry Voigt for his sleuthing.