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Bohemian Hall Beer Garden, a Century Ahead of the Times

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This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.

[Adam Lerner, 6/9/11]

For decades, the Bohemian Hall Beer Garden was an oddity, an Old World-style beer garden, an immigration-born leftover, in ultra-modern New York. Suddenly, it's one among many, as retro-gardens have sprung up from Williamsburg to Harlem. But, though a century old, it's still first among equals. And it will likely be around long after some of the new joints have faded into memory, for the Garden has a larger purpose; it is owned and managed by the Bohemian Citizens' Benevolent Society of Astoria, which resides right next door.

Though it's composed of a big square of concrete surrounded by stone walls, and set in the middle of a bleak stretch of western Queens, the Garden is nonetheless charm itself. Trees have had decades to grow tall and offer their shade. Picnic tables abound, some sheltered by enormous umbrellas bearing the logos of a dozen different Czech, Slovak and German beers. (If the Hall doesn't have the largest Jever umbrella in the United States, I'd eat my Tyrolean hat.)

A democratic air of wholesome recreation reigns. And the crowd is melting-pot rich. Lots of locals, but also destination drinkers. Old people, young people, little kids, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latin-Americans and, of course, lots of Czechs. You'll hear people arguing in Czech on most nights. The day I most recently lifted a three-pound glass to my lips, a trio of drunken Czechs were paging through a Beatles songbook, singing the tunes to guitar accompaniment. Close your eyes, and you might have imagined yourself in the middle of the 1968 Prague Spring.

While most of the other patrons eyed the troubadours with a mix of benevolent appreciation and bemused disbelief, a trio of twentysomething girls got up and approached the stocky singers. They asked to take a photograph, though I do not think the women were tourists. They stayed after that, and sang a few verses of "Yesterday" and "Across the Universe."

I thought the table next to me was composed of more Czechs, but they turned out to be Albanians from Calabria. A 40-ish woman one table over, who had been stood up by her friend, bought admission to the Albanian party with the remainder of her pitcher. Her dad was Italian, she revealed. She told them her life story, which wasn't terribly interesting, but they listened kindly. "Albanians are know for their friendliness," one of the men explained. "And their stupidity."

The wurst here are given to you like a kit. There's a couple slices of rye, a sausage and some sauerkraut. You put it together. Only wusses need buns. I went into the adjoining inside bar and ordered a Czechvar, as the table waitresses were off that night. "What kind of beer is it?" I asked. "Dark beer," replied the barmaid in a gruff accent. "Is it good?" "Yes. Six dollars." An active member of the benevolent Society she was not. But she told me all I needed to know in five words.
—Brooks of Sheffield