OKTOBERFEST in Munich began on Sept. 17. But in Hoboken, the thirst for European beer and hankering for schnitzel preceded it. Since early August, when Pilsener Haus, a biergarten, opened in an abandoned factory building here, lines to get in have sometimes spilled past the imposing iron gates onto the street.
The annual run-up to the European celebration, with its oompah-band performances and keg-tapping ceremonies, was not the reason for the throngs, though, according to Andrej Ivanov, a co-owner of Pilsener Haus.
“Hoboken needed something like this,” said Mr. Ivanov, of Long Valley, who was a founder of Radegast Hall and Biergarten, which opened in Brooklyn in 2007. “Where else can you go in Hoboken, or even all of New Jersey, where you have room to put your elbows out and there’s an interactive atmosphere?” Mr. Ivanov, known as Andy, added. Oktoberfest at Pilsener Haus runs through Oct. 22.
Pilsener Haus certainly offers a cavernous space, with outdoor communal tables covered by umbrellas, two indoor rooms and three bars dispensing 21 varieties of draft beer and 50 varieties of bottled brew. But it is not the first big beer hall in Hudson County. Zeppelin Hall Restaurant and Biergarten opened in Jersey City in 2008, offering 148 beer taps dispensing 48 different beers, with room enough for 1,000 beer drinkers at a time. Oktoberfest there runs through Oct. 29.
At Zeppelin Hall, as at Pilsener Haus, seating adheres to the communal tradition. Outside, lines of wooden plank tables, some as long as 40 feet, stripe the 12,000-square-foot beer garden, where a bartender fills mugs with European and American pilsners and lagers, wheat beers and craft brews.
Zeppelin Hall is even more expansive inside. The interior includes three rooms, each with its own bar, and two open-window grills at which customers order from the half-German, half-American menu; a beeper alerts them when their food is ready, allowing for wandering rather than waiting. (There is no table service.) A sausage sampler, $11.95, includes three varieties (choices include bratwurst, kielbasa, Andouille, chicken bratwurst and cheese bratwurst); the cheese spaetzle ($6.95) is served with a small side salad. Just as popular, though, according to John Argento, an owner, are the spicy buffalo wings ($7.95) and the eight-ounce Black Angus cheeseburger ($9.95).
“I tried to be true to the German design of the place,” said Mr. Argento, a Manhattan resident and former nightclub owner. His partner in the venture is Peter Mocco, the real estate developer of Liberty Harbor, of which Zeppelin Hall is a part. “But if you’re going to be German, you have to be real rigid about certain things,” Mr. Argento, 57, said. He wanted to be more flexible — to have staff members wearing dirndls and lederhosen only during Oktoberfest, for instance, not all year round.
Also, he said, “when you’ve got a football game going and everybody’s watching, you can’t call yourself a genuine beer hall.”
Giant TV screens are in each of Zeppelin Hall’s rooms, so “in that sense, we’re not,” Mr. Argento added. “Our concept is German, but we’ve had to make some adjustments.”
Pilsener Haus takes a harder line on tradition.
“We have a level of authenticity here nobody can beat,” said Mr. Ivanov, who scoured antique shops in Europe and America for Pilsener Haus’s period-specific Eastern European lighting and décor. There’s not a TV screen to be seen. “If you come in here and it doesn’t transport you to 100 years ago, there’s something wrong,” he said.
Mr. Ivanov, a native of the Czech Republic, owns Pilsener Haus with Ladislav Sebestyan, of Secaucus. After he opened Radegast Hall and bought a 300-year-old house in Long Valley, the time-consuming commute to Brooklyn led him to search in New Jersey for a new venture.
“In New Jersey it’s much more challenging to open a place,” he said. Permit issues delayed the opening repeatedly.
Now, though, he said, “we’re a known destination even though we’re off the beaten path.” (Because of the sprawling nature of biergartens, both Pilsener Haus and Zeppelin Hall are off downtown grids; a benefit of being away from the bustle is ample parking.)
Dirndl skirts and lederhosen are not in evidence among Pilsener Haus’s roughly 40 employees — waiters and waitresses roam the vast premises in uniforms of black shorts, black shirts and red suspenders that more subtly call to mind Alpine mountain climbers — but nods to cultural tradition abound.
The restaurant’s 21 draft beers are from Germany, Belgium, Austria and the Czech Republic, and they are described in poetic terms better associated with wine lists. (Mr. Ivanov’s favorite, Arcobräu Zwicklbier, from Moos, Germany, is described on the menu as having a “yeast-hazed golden hue” and “faint aromas of pepper, fresh-cut grass and bread”; a liter is $13.)
The chef, Thomas Ferlesch, formerly of Café des Artistes in Manhattan and Thomas Beisl in Brooklyn, devised a traditional menu of Austro-Hungarian favorites like Wiener schnitzel (served with potato salad, cucumber salad and lingonberries, $15) and a charcuterie and cheese platter ($15).
The setting is more upscale here; food is served on china with silverware, instead of plastic utensils and plates, as at Zeppelin Hall. At Pilsener Haus, there is table service for food and drinks, or customers can order drinks at the bar and sausages and sandwiches at one of two grills, then take a seat.
Soft pretzels roughly the circumference of a human head accompanied by mustard and cheese are staples at Pilsener Haus and Zeppelin Hall ($11 at Pilsener Haus, $9.95 at Zeppelin Hall).
Both places are experimenting with music. Beginning Thursday, Zeppelin Hall will introduce a karaoke night with a twist — singing customers will be backed not by a karaoke machine but by a live rock quartet. At Pilsener Haus, Mr. Ivanov expects to bring in “jazz, blues, swing, gypsy and local artists” on weeknights.
Throughout Oktoberfest, both restaurants will provide live theme music. Pilsener Haus will have oompah and polka bands on some nights; Zeppelin Hall will have “party bands” on Fridays and Saturdays during Oktoberfest as well as on Saturdays throughout the year.
“They play German music,” Mr. Argento said. “It’s goofy, but everybody’s in on the joke.”
Pilsener Haus and Biergarten, 1422 Grand Street, Hoboken; (201) 683-5465 or pilsenerhaus.com. Open Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Friday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, noon to 2 a.m.
Zeppelin Hall Restaurant and Biergarten, 88 Liberty View Drive, Jersey City; (201) 721-8888 or zeppelinhall.com. Open Monday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Friday, 4 p.m. to 3 a.m.; Saturday, noon to 3 a.m.; and Sunday, noon to 2 a.m.