It was just shy of midnight on a Saturday, and there we were, standing like fools on benches inside Hofbräuhaus Cleveland's main beer hall. With liter glasses of beer in hand, we swayed with strangers in tipsy unison to the brass- and accordion-driven oom-pah band. Not one of the 500 or so guests in the coliseum-size room, it seemed, was still sitting down. At one point, I glanced across the communal table at my wife, who for some strange reason was wearing a bike helmet. She did not arrive with a bike helmet.
It didn't start this way. Just minutes before, we were enjoying a quiet meal in the cocoon-like Hermit Club, part of the original 1920s structure that is now Cleveland's most enchanting bierstube. In fact, we congratulated ourselves for having the good judgment to settle here instead of that frat boy-friendly beer hall, where "shotskis" and cheesy sing-alongs are par for the course. But sure enough, despite our best judgment and intentions, we ultimately couldn't resist the Oktoberfest-like atmosphere of the big room.
Yes, Hofbräuhaus Cleveland is loud, touristy and occasionally annoying. But if you think it's any different overseas at the original in Munich, you obviously haven't been there. Like the original — and other official outposts in Columbus, Pittsburgh and Chicago — servers are clad in dirndls and lederhosen. Beer, brewed onsite in gleaming and prominently displayed copper kettles, is sold by the liter ($10.99) and half-liter ($5.99). Those draft beers, by the way, are spot on, with crisp Bavarian helles (pale), dunkles (dark), hefeweizen (wheat) and a rotating seasonal.
Take a seat in the first come, first served beer hall and it won't be long before one of the countless servers makes his or her way over to your table for a beer order. Keep your eyes peeled for the jaunty pretzel girls, too, who roam the hall dispensing quick and cheap sustenance in the form of Bavarian-style pretzels ($2.25) from wicker baskets.
Frankly, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food here. My hopes? Not high for a 650-seat party palace serving an ethnic cuisine. But let's face it; German food is pretty straightforward, and as long as dishes like potato pancakes and wienerschnitzel are pan-fried to order, which they clearly are, the battle is more than half won. Golden brown as billed, those latkes ($7.99) are served three to an order with applesauce. The pounded and breaded pork schnitzel ($17.59) is hot, crisp-shelled and fork-tender. It's paired with German potato salad, a vinegar-based, room temperature version sans mayo. Arrive before 4 p.m. and you can enjoy that schnitzel in a bun ($10.99).
The kitchen goes out of its way to cook and serve weisswurst ($9.99), a delicate white veal sausage traditionally consumed before noon, the authentic way. That means poaching them in hot water instead of grilling to prevent splitting, and serving them with a pretzel and sweet mustard. Despite all that, the sausages burst open like a downtown water main. Texture aside, they still tasted great.
Another impressive dish that missed the mark by only a hair is the schweinshaxe ($24.69), a massive bone-in roast pork shank bearing its signature crackling pigskin exterior. The meat was flavorful and yielded from the bone with little effort. But it also was on the dry side, as though it sat in a warming station for much of the night. This celebratory platter also includes two kinds of shredded kraut and comforting bread and potato dumplings with gravy. Order the pierogies ($14.99) and you'll net a half-dozen potato and cheese pockets mixed with sliced sausage and sautéed onions. Delays for food can mount here given the crowds, but it sure beats stacks of pre-cooked, steam table food.
Lines get so long for tables here at times that the restaurant erects a tent and staffs the beer garden kiosk, which dispenses cold beer and warm mulled wine. Come spring, the outdoor 1,000-seat bier garden will relieve much of that pressure. Groups and those wishing to sit in the Hermit Club or upstairs can call ahead and attempt to make reservations, but those spaces are often booked for private events. Best advice: come early, come on weekdays, and try to avoid peak weekend hours.
Part of the problem, of course, is that folks don't leave. Yes, shotskis (a ski with shot glasses glued to it requiring participants to drink in synch) are a sign of the apocalypse, and the Chicken Dance makes one covet a skewer to the eardrum, but the plain truth is: the Hofbräuhaus is — given the right mood and company — more fun than drunk skinny dipping in the Rhine with pretzels as water wings. Actually, it's pretty much the same thing.