My initial exposure to German culture came during the first few weeks of my junior year abroad. One evening in September ’99, three brand-new friends and I raced off into the sunset across the unsecured French border on our trusty rent-a-bikes. (My ride was bright pink and accessorized with a Toto-sized basket out front.) Once on German soil, we boarded our first train (of many) chugging its way toward Munich. Destination: Oktoberfest. We carried with us one change of clothing, had no lodging booked, collectively spoke two words of Deutsch and had a vague plan to simply meet my friend from home “under the Glockenspiel” (ah, those haphazard, pre-cell phone days).
We were bursting with excitement and “green” naivete, but, thankfully, some lederhosen-clad travel gods smiled down upon us. We had a blast (and even found shelter thanks to some kind souls who shared their Marriott floor space). During that adventure, I learned several things about the German community: they are much friendlier than cultural stereotypes might suggest, they can belt out “Take Me Home, Country Roads” with the best of ‘em, and they know how to brew some darn good (and, yes, potent) beer. Munich knows how to throw a party.
Luckily for us Americans, our country has also embraced this holiday that practically demands indulgence (from the free-flowing bier to the hearty dishes) and general merriment to be shared among large groups of friends and family. Today more than 43 million Americans identify German as their primary ancestry, and that culture’s widely celebrated here in DC (especially at this time of year!).
German culture thrives year-round at Wisconsin Avenue’s Old Europe, one of DC’s longest surviving restaurants (opened in 1948). Loyal patrons from ex-pats to embassy folk flock to this dark and intimate space where servers wear drindl dresses, beer steins and model ships decorate the walls, and a pianist plays polkas and requests Thursday through Sunday evenings. Other highlights: a special Oktoberfest menu accompanied by authentic goods one would find on the Munich fairgrounds like gingerbread hearts and the official, imported Spaten Oktoberfest Bier.
For other Oktoberfest menus, head to Capitol Hill’s Cafe Berlin for dishes like “Sauerbraten” (on the patio, if warm enough) and, also on the Hill, Art and Soul, where a three-course prix-fix “Beer Dinner” runs throughout the month of October and features beer-steamed mussels and a cider-braised pork shank with black-eyed pea stew, spicy collard greens, apples and fennel. Clarendon’s Restaurant 3 taps the kegs of German beers and grills traditional sausages from October 9 to 12, while Rustico in Alexandria hosts a block party October 10 that celebrates with live music, a “bubble lounge” for the over-21 crowd, handmade pretzels and 26 seasonal beers on draft.
There are several spots where the German community finds a slice of home. Tucked away on H Street NW, Café Mozart consists of a deli up front, restaurant in the back (the schnitzel variety is impressive) and a small market that stocks imported goods from cheeses to marzipan sweets. For a cultural fix, Chinatown’s Goethe-Institut offers films, lectures and exhibitions any time of year. October 10 they host a “classical Oktoberfest with a literary twist” with a lecture and film on German writer-philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and lunch served in between. October 29 a joint event with the International Club of DC means live jazz plus more German food and drinks.
But if you were really just hoping to raise your stein (or Mass) this season, never fear. Never one to miss the chance to capitalize on a holiday (any holiday) with a bar crawl, Lindy Promotions presents the 18th annual “Bartoberfest” September 26 that weaves its way through Chinatown bars like The Greene Turtle (the starting spot from 1 to 6 p.m.), Bar Louie, Rocket Bar and Clyde’s. If braving drunken hordes seems to be your thing (much like the real Oktoberfest scene, come to think of it), join this drinking expedition that also features free beer coozies for the first 300 attendees, drink specials and a bratwurst eating-contest. Tickets cost $13 (or $10 with a donation of school supplies benefiting Horton’s kids).
Oktoberfest at Fort Meade (September 23 to 27) is free and features a carnival, culinary demos, travel bureau and, of course, the obligatory oompah band. Blob’s Park Bavarian Beer Garden hosts family-friendly festivities Saturdays and Sundays through October 24. The $10 admission fee includes 7 p.m. performances put on by “America’s first Oktoberfest! Band.” The new mini-metropolis of National Harbor gets in on the action with “Das Best Oktoberfest” (if they do say so themselves…) on September 26 from noon to 8 p.m. Tickets cost $30 at the door. Feeling competitive? Strut your stuff there in the “Beer Belly Contest” or “Miss Oktoberfest Competition.”
On October 3 from noon to 7 p.m., at the Shirlington outpost of the Capitol City Brewing Company, visitors enjoy four-ounce beer samples from 30-plus breweries as well as food from local vendors. There’s no cost to enter, and $25 tickets grant access to beer tastings. Tempting tidbits: the venue boasts “authentic German food and an Oktoberfest band,” and its website even displays an up-to-the second party countdown.
Still haven’t found an Oktoberfest that strikes your fancy? Try the one in Reston Town Center October 9 through 11, or trek to Maryland’s Kentlands Village Green October 25 to 27. Several towns delight in their German history, like Loudon County Virginia’s Lovettsville which was settled by German immigrants following the 1722 Treaty of St. Albans and this year hosts a fair September 25 to 27. Highlights of Germantown’s October 3 celebration: a biergarten and celeb emcee, Local Channel 7′s newscaster Julie Parker. Prost!