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While the pandemic might have put a damper on this year’s Oktoberfest, the creative minds behind Oakland commissary space Forage Kitchen and San Francisco German restaurant Suppenküche have partnered to bring a Bavarian-style biergarten to the Oakland community.
Hofküche, which roughly translates to “outdoor kitchen,” is a new al fresco gathering space ready to serve hearty platters of bratwurst or wiener schnitzel and some really great German beer. It opens on what would have been the first official day of Munich’s canceled Oktoberfest, Saturday, Sept. 19.
Beer gardens are not new to Oakland, but Forage Kitchen co-founders, cousins Matt Johansen and Iso Rabins, and their business partner, Suppenküche founder and Bavaria native Fabricius (Fabi) Wiest, say Hofküche will stand out for being more akin to the outdoor drinking spaces that originated in the southeastern German state.
While some may already be drawing parallels between Hofküche and Bierhaus and Brotzeit Lokal, two other German beer-focused restaurants in Oakland, the team insists that the concepts are completely different.
“That’s a great place,” said Rabins of Bierhaus, which is currently closed in Oakland (its Walnut Creek location remains open), “but I do think our menu tracks more closely to what Fabi experienced when he was growing up in Bavaria. For us, the outdoor space is really the heart of the project. Having a nice large space to sit in the open air is really what people need right now.”
The Forage co-founders had envisioned a biergarten at the Uptown Oakland venue for quite some time. Johansen had worked with Wiest to open Biergarten, a similar concept in Hayes Valley, in 2011, so he tapped Wiest again to work together again on Hofküche. Johansen, it should be noted, is no longer a part of the Hayes Valley spot and Hofküche is a completely separate entity.
Why open during the pandemic?
But why, you might wonder, would anyone launch a gathering space in the midst of a pandemic? According to Johansen, it was an intentional decision.
“In this moment, we are really looking to create a second space, a second home for people,” he explained. “People are at home and not necessarily at work anymore, and to create a safe environment that’s all exterior for people to come together and to enjoy food and conversation in a socially distant and safe environment is what we are doing.”
While some readers may scoff at, or even reprimand, the Hofküche founders for promoting group gatherings during these socially distant times, especially given findings from a new CDC study that links eating and drinking on-site at restaurants with COVID-19 cases, the owners insist that they have established a strict protocol for both customers and staff.
Along with maintaining six-feet distance between parties and enforcing mask-wearing, Rabins explained that the team will limit the biergarten’s occupancy and will require patrons to wait outside the space until they are notified via text message that their table is ready. Customers will only be seated after their table has been properly sanitized — according to Rabins, this measure will be strictly followed and will happen between every seating.
In addition, tables will be limited to no more than six people at any given time, and everyone must be living in the same household or interacting with their quarantine pod. According to the CDC, on-site outdoor dining with limited capacity, and tables spaced at least six feet apart is riskier than ordering takeout or delivery, but less risky than eating indoors with limited capacity and spaced tables. The dining option with the most risk is eating indoors, without restrictions on capacity and table spacing.
As for ordering food and drinks, menu items can be ordered at the counter, where staff and diners will be required to wear masks, or from the table using a QR code. Diners can also opt to order takeout or delivery. To add an extra layer of protection, Rabins said delivery drivers will be required to pick up orders at a separate location away from on-site customers.
Now, you may be wondering how Hofküche will enforce these COVID-19 protocols after someone has had one too many boots of beer. According to Rabins, the staff is prepared for that too.
“Yes, of course, it gets harder to make people follow rules after a boot of beer,” Rabins said, “but we’re planning on having enough staff so we can ‘gently’ remind people to stay safe. With the QR code ordering system at the tables, people will mostly be sitting with their cohort, so it’s really only when they get up for the bathroom that we’ll need to remind them. It’s definitely something we’re serious about.”
Despite the strict mandates that will be implemented during operating hours, however, diners should obviously enter the beer garden at their own discretion.
What’s on the menu
For those who decide to visit Hofküche, they’ll find a full menu of German classics like brats, sauerkraut, potatoes and pretzels and specialty dishes such as käsespätzle, a cheesy, rustic “pasta” dish akin to mac ’n’ cheese in an onion-butter sauce. The Hofküche culinary team is looking forward to offering other traditional plates in the future, like sauerbraten, a super homey braised beef dish traditionally eaten with potatoes and red cabbage, and whole and half rotisserie chickens — a staple at biergartens in Germany.
But perhaps most exciting of all is the extensive list that features 12 imported German beers on tap. From pilsners to hefeweizens and doppelbocks to dunkels, the Hofküche owners intend to feature brews from the very best German breweries, including larger names such as Weihenstephaner, and small-batch producers like Schönramer, which sources its hops from small family farms outside of Munich. (There will also be a small selection of local brews from the likes of Fort Point Beer Company, Ghost Town and Temescal Brewing.) And if you can’t tell your maibock from your rauchbier, the well-versed beertenders are happy to provide a guided selection of sips to find the perfect stein.
Whatever your brew of choice may be, however, Hofküche is first and foremost intended to be a home away from home, even during these socially distant times.
“The tradition of the biergarten in Germany is for family and the community to come together, and I think that, more than anything, is what we are trying to transport,” said Rabins. “It’s a place where [all kinds of] people feel welcome. That is more important than anything,” before Johansen added, “This is our take on it here in Oakland.”
Hofküche’s grand opening takes place Saturday, Sept. 19, from 3-9 p.m., and the first 50 people will receive a free beer. Regular operations commencing Wednesday through Sunday. The biergarten will also host weekly musical performances featuring local musicians.
The team will be monitoring Oakland’s air quality, however, it appears that festivities will occur regardless of what is reported by the Air Quality Index, and diners should only partake if they are comfortable doing so.
The Hofküche grand opening is 3-9 p.m., Saturday. Regular hours are noon-4 p.m., 5-8:30 p.m., Wednesday through Friday; 2-8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.