When you're hungry, you go to a restaurant. And when you're thirsty, you go to a biergarten. Seems reasonable, right? But woe to the drinker who shows up at Bay Street Biergarten, the latest enterprise to occupy the cavernous former Boathouse at 549 East Bay St., with designs on a satisfying quaff.
Bay Street Biergarten
Cuisine: Southern U.S. meets Southern Germany
Representative Dish: Sausage spaetzle n' cheese
Address: 549 East Bay St.
Hours: 4 p.m.-11 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.- 12 midnight, Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday.
Costs: Appetizers $5-$16; soups and salads $5-$10; sandwiches $10-$12; entrees $18-$28
Wheelchair Accessible: Yes
If you want a beer at the 3-month-old Bay Street, you can choose from a list of 21 drafts administered by the bartender. The selection includes a few obligatory nods to the local brew scene but is dominated by names you probably recall from the last time you swung by the grocery store to grab a couple of six-packs for a party. There's a potential way around the Sweetwater IPA and PBR, though: Bay Street has installed a row of self-service taps on a back wall, and clusters of them atop its four communal tables.
Unfortunately, what's flowing from the taps isn't listed anywhere, and the prepaid card needed to operate them (it took my server about 15 minutes to return with the tiny slip of paper I had to sign in exchange for a card) doesn't buy beers from the bar. So if you're seized with regret after investing in the system, your only recourse is to pour yourself a consolation ale, and hope the tap's working, since you pay the same price per ounce whether your glass fills with liquid or foam.
First, though, you have to reach your desired tap, which usually means disturbing a huddle of diners locked in conversation. While eating a pork chop at a communal table, I was forced to stand up five times to accommodate card-carrying drinkers. The men among them looked especially embarrassed when they pulled cascades of froth.
Bay Street Biergarten has a number of interesting elements, but they're slapped together in discordant and dysfunctional fashion. Yes, there's a corn hole court out back, and the servers are outfitted with iPads — “everyone thinks they're so cool, but they never work,” one server groused — but the German-ish beer hall's gestalt is overwhelmingly higgedly-piggledy. As beer backup, the food's not bad: The problem is the beer program isn't marquee material.
With a menu that skews Teutonic, there ought to be bocks, marzens and landbiers. Bay Street bar's dancing to a different lied, typically offering just one German draft; another half-dozen German beers are sold by the bottle. Over on the wine list, there's a $76 bottle of grower Champagne, but the only representative of Germany's compelling wine scene is a bottle of Villa Wolf's Riesling, marked up about 300 percent.
So it's up to the servers to steer diners to the right pints to pair with their pretzels. Yet the servers I encountered over three visits weren't familiar with the available drafts, a clear failure of training on the part of a restaurant weirdly blase about beer.
That nonchalance was particularly apparent the day after New Year's, when the restaurant was trying to empty its holiday special kegs. Since there wasn't a printed beer list, our server showed us a blurry photo of a chalkboard partially blocked by the bartender's head. She then ticked off a few of the beers she was able to remember, ending the list with “yadda, yadda, yadda.” Sold.
Visitors to Bay Street Biergarten are probably best off bypassing the quasi-craft beer rigamarole; ordering a PBR and enjoying the attractive space. Bay Street looks great, from its distressed wood floors to its exposed cathedral wood ceiling. The split-level, brick-walled room is furnished with long wooden tables; cozy, crescent-shaped banquettes and wagon wheel chandeliers that emit warm, pleasant light. There are fancy TVs affixed to most of the walls, but the restaurant's exceptional suitability for large groups helps make noisy conversation the primary source of entertainment.
And where there are crowds, there are snacks. Bay Street's chef, Jason Walker, is very proud of his pretzels, and rightly so: The ruddy, crisped exteriors of the faintly sweet, doughy twists are perfectly salted. A segment of grilled housemade bratwurst tucked into a pretzel hoagie roll was one of my favorite starters, although I wish the sausages came with mustard.
Other appetizers were considerably less successful, including plasticky pierogies; a muted pimiento cheese-play on mozzarella sticks, served chewy and cold; and a lackluster plate of charcuterie. The drab, lean pastrami stacked on a Reuben wasn't much better, nor were the severely undercooked potatoes in the salad accompanying it.
Bay Street gets a fair amount of mileage out of its smoked gouda, goat cheese and Velveeta sauce (no word on how the restaurant plans to respond to the recently publicized shortage of the cheese product.) It's slathered on French fries, tater tots and spatezle, for a rich and gooey mac-and-cheese crowned with tentacles of fried onions. Only a nutritional prude would shun it.
Dry wiener schnitzel and mashed potatoes suggest Bay Street's kitchen is at its best when it isn't merely reheating, even if it does do strange things, like put green beans in the Caesar salad. Even though I wasn't crazy about the overly thick red wine sauce surrounding it, a tender pan-seared chicken breast sported wonderfully crackly skin. And the meaty pork chop, brushed with a sticky sweet sorghum glaze, is flat out worth gnawing off the bone. Now where do I get a beer around here?
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.