by LEN LEAR
“Bierstube” is a German word that means a large hall or barroom featuring beer and (usually) entertainment; it can even mean “lecture hall” or “pool hall.”
It is also the name of a gastropub that opened in June of this year at 206 Market St., where a sushi house called Asian Bistro previously held sway. It looks like a thousand other bars in the area that serve food — dark woods, dim lighting, loud music, TV sets over the bar turned to baseball and football games — and that have brew-niversal appeal, you might say. I counted 10 beers in cans, 12 on draft and 173 in bottles, mostly German. They claim to have the city’s largest selection of German beers, even more than the much more highly publicized Frankford Hall and Brauhaus Schmitz.
Owner Mike Naessens, 40, is quite a human interest story in his own right. Mike is a Certified Public Accountant with an undergraduate degree from Villanova and an MBA from Drexel. (His father had a CPA firm, and as a child Mike helped his dad with inventory counts.) He has been an adjunct professor at Drexel and Community College of Philadelphia as well as a produce manager at Acme Markets, an accountant for Price Waterhouse Coopers and then senior finance director for Campbell’s Soup Company.
In the latter position, Mike had the opportunity to travel all over Western Europe in the 1990s, but his own Belgian family heritage impelled him to learn a great deal about Belgian food and beer. His sister, who had a background in restaurants, encouraged him to follow his new-found dream of turning his Belgium-philia into a career.
Whereas accounting is about as secure a career as owning a gold mine, opening a restaurant is about as insecure as bungee-jumping. Nevertheless, Mike took the plunge in 2003 with Eulogy Belgian Tavern at 136 Chestnut St., followed by Beneluxx, another beer hall, two blocks away at 33 S. 3rd St. The converted rowhouse housing Eulogy is a historic property; it is where the iconic jeweler Bailey, Banks and Biddle was founded in 1832.
Eulogy claims to have Philadelphia’s largest beer selection with more than 300 international and domestic craft-brewed bottled beers and 21 draft beers served every day. It is ranked as the fifth best beer restaurant in the U.S. by the website ratebeer.com.
Bierstube, the third entrant in Mike’s burgeoning mug-oriented empire, has a pretty downscale appearance, even by gastropub standards. (One terrific touch, though, is a table made out of a canoe that still has oars in it.) The blue and white vinyl covering on our table in the bare-bones dining room was not clean and had holes in it. There were no napkins or silverware on any of the tables, although they were brought out after the food was served.
But Bierstube is one of those places where you have an appetizer of low expectations and are pleasantly surprised when really good food comes out. And the food at Bierstube, while not inexpensive, is outstanding. For example, the bite-size warm pretzels that come with three dipping sauces had some serious mojo ($6.99). The sriracha/plum sauce was just OK, but the whole grain mustard dip and beer cheese dip were dip-alicious. If you can take the heat, the Tsingtau Buffalo wings ($7.99) were another winner with its blue cheese dip (not enough of it) and chili hot sauce.
Now, since my favorite non-denominational saint is Saint Brew-no and my favorite type of music is Malt-ernative Rock and my favorite movie is “The Empire Strikes Bock” and my favorite TV sitcom character is Punky Brewster, I usually decide which beer to drink on a case-by-case basis. And I decided on the Fat Jack pumpkin beer ($5.99), which was nirvana with the hot stuff.
It is not exactly health food, but taste-wise, you can’t go wrong with the bratwurst entree — three hefty sausages of chicken, pork and venison, with a small amount of apple bacon sauerkraut ($19.99). We thought the first two were were yummy but that the venison was too dry. Side dishes of spaetzle and warm German potato salad ($4.99 each) were the best, not the wurst.
A song writer once said that the sweetest kiss is the one never tasted, but the sweetest dessert is really Bierstube’s homemade dark chocolate brownies with salted caramel sauce ($6.99). Rich and gooey and dreamy.
Our server, Malik Hassan, was extremely personable. I should add, as you are probably aware, that finding a legal parking space near 2nd and Market Streets is about as easy as finding a Rolex watch on the sidewalk. We drove around the area for about 15 to 20 minutes before finding a space on 5th Street, between Market and Chestnut. (Bring lots of quarters if you are lucky enough to find a kiosk.)
I just hope that Bierstube doesn’t start serving beer to young people who are “barley legal.” For more information, call 215-922-2958 mybierstube.com