In Munich, a tasty turn
Creative bartenders and chefs are mixing it up in the Bavarian capital
It was a Thursday afternoon and the surfers were out in full force in Munich’s English Garden, catching the waves that rolled through the Eisbach, a narrow channel of the Isar River.
This surreal scene was happening across a grassy plot from the Haus der Kunst, a contemporary art museum that was built in the 1930s to house Nazi propaganda art before it became an officers’ club for the U.S. Army. The walls in the room where the soldiers — and the Nazi officials before them — drank are covered in gold-leaf panels painted with maps depicting different wine- and spirit-making regions around the world. They were concealed with plywood to downplay the building’s history but were uncovered and restored in 2003.
This is the historic backdrop for nighttime revelers, but on this sunny afternoon, hip young things, including a few with wet hair from the surf, were gathered on the expansive patio. I settled among them for the outdoor bar’s signature — a gin sour topped with gin-and-tonic foam and sprinkled with dehydrated Campari bits — and tried to balance myself at this fascinating intersection of then and now.
Munich has long been a victim of typecasting, mired in a reputation of oversize mugs of beer and bratwurst consumed by lederhosen-clad revelers during Oktoberfest. But in recent years, bartenders and chefs have worked to make that an antiquated image. Their efforts are paying off.
That’s the sense I got at Wabi Sabi Shibui, an imaginative Japanese restaurant that opened in 2018. It’s owned by Klaus St. Rainer, who also owns Goldene Bar. A bartender for several years at Schumann’s, pretty much the city’s only cocktail destination for years (more on that in a moment), he was insistent on bringing Munich into a new era.
I sipped on a Me So Miso, an Eastern twist on an Old-Fashioned with JapaWizigmann, nese whiskey and sake and sweetened with clarified miso syrup. The food plays on Japanese flavors.
The Ramonara is a ramen noodle variation on the spaghetti carbonara theme, and a potato salad dish comes with salmon caviar, shoyu egg and edamame. This being potato salad in Germany, however, I couldn’t help but think it took cues from local cuisine too.
But these days, with so many chefs on the move around the world, “local cuisine” can sometimes feel like something dynamic, a synthesis of an individual’s personal experience.
At the sleek yet inviting and casual Sophia’s, in the grand Charles Hotel across from the Old Botanical Garden, the kitchen is helmed by chef Michael Hüsken, who cooked throughout Germany, over which time he twice earned a Michelin star. He describes his food as “world open” and bases his menus on seasonal ingredients, his travels in Asia and Southeast Asia, and all sorts of local fresh herbs.
On this day in August, delicate Bavarian prawns were a recent catch, served with watermelon cubes, skyr (a type of Icelandic yogurt), a lightly herbal sauce and tarragon cress. Fresh porcini tortellini was prepared with wild broccoli, young onions, parsley and radish.
I had chatted earlier with Pascal Leubecher, a young bartender, and asked him if he ever tried pairing his culinary-style cocktails with the food. He consulted with the chef on the ingredients, paused, and reached for gin — and parsley, a big bunch of it that he would muddle. The resulting mix, which also included ginger syrup, a dash of salt and verjus, a sort-of vinegar made from unripe grapes, was garnished with a pearl onion. It sliced through the rich porcini broth.
German engineering, right there.
I try to arrive in a foreign city with a list of recommendations from those who know it. I asked my friend Hank Strummer, a globe-trotting Black Forest-based DJ whom I met in New York, and he told me to visit his friend Jörg who opened Polka Restaurant and Bar three years ago.
“It’s the real-deal underground Bavaria,” Hank insisted.
“Polka” inevitably inspired visions of lederhosen and bratwurst, but the name is tongue-in-cheek. The small, adorable restaurant specializes in seasonally driven dishes, such as the watermelon and goat cheese salad I tasted, but it’s the basement bar with Art Deco-style furnishings that draws creative types to this hangout in Haidhausen, an idyllic district near the English Garden.
After dinner, I headed back to Glockenbachviertel, a neighborhood known for its warren of streets lined with bars, vintage stores and coffee shops. I had been there earlier for lunch at Loretta Bar. By day, it’s a trendy, chill cafe with dishes such as fruit-topped muesli porridge; come evening, it’s a much livelier hangout. I was glad to have stopped by in daylight because at night it’s hard to make out the countless bottles of amari that line the vast shelves.
Bartenders here are amari evangelists who speak reverently of the stuff. Ben, my bartender, poured me a flight of four that ranged from sweet and fruity to dark, honeyed and mysterious. The spectrum of herbaceous flavors put my palate and mind squarely in old-world Europe.
With that, I was ready to call it a night. But when I got back to my hotel, Ruby Lilly — a stylish boutique outfit about a 10-minute walk from Hauptbahnhof, Munich’s central train station — I was derailed by the low-key merriment in the bar, an industrial-chic space with playful ’70s and ’80s retro decor.
International travelers swapped stories over Munich Mules, a gin-based twist on the classic. Flatbread pizzas streamed out of the 24-hour kitchen, and beer flowed from the round-theclock taps.
After a few days of speaking with bartenders and locals, it was clear that the modern scene has its roots in one place: Schumann’s. The bar, which is situated on the tourist-dense Odeonsplatz, was opened in 1982 by Charles Schumann, who’s something of a legend not only for the bar but also for his book “American Bar: The Artistry of Mixing Drinks,” which he published in 1995, long before the cocktail renaissance.
Schumann cuts a striking figure as he darts about the restaurant, which has an Italian air about it.The bartenders crank out cocktails — most of them classics.
The drink menu has 58 pages and an index. Schumann is famously vocal about his disdain for oversize cocktail garnishes and other precious flourishes. He shows me a poster of an outtake from a 1940 bartending book. It reads, “The idea of calling a bartender a professor or mixologist is nonsense.”
Cihan Anadologlu wouldn’t go so far as to call himself a mixologist, but his approach to drink-making differs vastly from that of his mentor.
Head bartender at Schumann’s for 10 years, Anadologlu opened Circle in
2016. A frequent visitor to Japan, Anadologlu takes cues from Tokyo bar culture. Precision is a hallmark here.
Anadologlu is a protege of Schumann, and Schumann is a protege of Bill Deck, a former U.S. Air Force reporter who worked at the famed Harry’s Bar in Paris and, when he relocated to Munich, opened Harry’s Bar in 1974 here, later changing the name to Pusser’s
New York Bar. Pusser’s is Navy rum, and the space, adorned with vintage naval paraphernalia, pays tribute to that provenance. So does the Caribbean-minded drink menu. Now the bar is owned by Bill’s son David, who was bartending the night of my visit.
David gave me a history lesson on the place and mixed me a Painkiller, a classic mixture of juices and the bar’s namesake rum served in a traditional enamel mug. He waxed rhapsodic about growing up in the place and falling into the role of owner, against his mother’s better judgment. I wondered, when I return in 40 years, what bartender will be telling me of his bar’s beginnings and where I’ll find the past and present intersect.
Pascal Leubecher, a bartender at Sophia’s in the Charles Hotel in Munich, makes progressive, creative cocktails with fresh fruits and herbs.