September is here and while many folks are busy with their back to school preparations, I get ready for my Fall activities: drinking German beer. It all begins with Labor Day because much of that history is rooted in Chicago. Thanks to the efforts of many hard-working German immigrants that demanded an 8 hour work day, we now get an entire day off. Hooray! These struggles and strides are well documented – see May Day and/or the Haymarket Riot of 1886. They helped spark the labor movement in our fine country and what better way to give thanks or commemorate such a pivotal moment in history than to throw back a few kolsch?
But September is also a time for another bit of German history: Oktoberfest. Oktoberfest in September? Kind of, yes. The first fest was held in October 1810 and it celebrated the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig (later King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen (the festival grounds are called Theresienwiese meaning Theresa’s fields). Realizing that the weather isn’t that conducive to outdoor beer drinking in October, the fest was moved up by a few weeks. Today Oktoberfest is celebrated from mid-September (third weekend) to early October (first weekend). And while Oktoberfest has been interrupted a few times thanks to war and cholera, 2010 will mark the 200th anniversary of this fantastic German tradition that has remarkably crossed the Atlantic to reach various cities in the US.
Chicago was founded by immigrants from all over the world. Germans made up a large percentage of the city’s earliest residents. Many settled in what is now Old Town and, as time passed, many moved north to the current neighborhoods of North Center and Lincoln Square. Thankfully, they brought their craft of beer brewing to town and its these German immigrants that created many of the historic breweries and taverns. While only a handful of German bierstubes remain, my favorite establishment to take in some great German food and drink is a little off-the-beaten-path place called Mirabell.
Located in the Irving Park neighborhood, Mirabell is everything you imagine a German bar to be. While the current building that stands on this corner was constructed in the 1950s, the location once had a small store front with an apartment above. It later housed a grocery store and a tavern and, in 1967, Mirabell was opened by Hans and Katherine Dobler. The bar takes its name from the Mirabell Gardens in Salzburg, Austria, the hometown of Katherine Dobler. Thus, the original Mirabell did its best to represent Austrian culture.
Werner and Anita Heil purchased the bar in 1977. For those of you that remember the great German restaurant, The Golden Ox, then you might be more familiar with Werner – he was the head chef there. Made up of a main bar, a large and beautiful dining room, two beer halls, and a nice little beer garden, Mirabell is a spacious, yet quaint and cozy place. Depending on the day of the week and time of day, the main bar can be a peaceful place or it can be a raucous and rowdy locale. The dining room is a great refuge from the bar goers and not a bad place to savor some traditional German fare. Prior to his fame with The Far Side, Gary Larson painted the murals in the main dining room. Admire the images of Neuschwanstein Castle while you savor some authentic wienershnitzel – yum. The beer hall is adorned with what seems like hundreds of little German figurines. Tables are set up like a German beer hall and live music adds to the Oktoberfest-like environment. Perhaps this is why I am often inspired to swing my beer stein back and forth, to and fro. Don’t judge, you’ll want to do it too!
Beer has some history here too. Of course Mirabell carries great German beers like Spaten, Bitburger, or Paulaner. But BBK, a tasty German pils, has some deep roots here. You see the Werner’s were the first to import BBK. And BBK also has some unique branding history. BBK is short for Barbarossa-Bräu Kaiserslautern. Barbarossa was the code name for Hitler’s invasion of Russia, so naturally, the brewery became known as BBK to avoid the association with Hitler. Good thinking.
So, if you can’t partake in the real Oktoberfest held in Munich this fall, you just might want to head to Mirabell to take in some festivities. And if you just want to partake in some authentic German food and beer, some friendly company, and great Chicago history, then Mirabell is your go-to place year round. Prost!