On a bright afternoon in September while new University of Wisconsin-Madison students were busy unpacking boxes in their dorm rooms, my son and I were enjoying one of the last days of summer in one of Madison's new lakeside spots — the Biergarten at Olbrich Park.
It was a fine choice for both of us. My 8-year-old played in a large sandbox, furnished with trucks and castle-building equipment. I sipped from a plastic mug of Ciderboys First Press Cider ($6) and watched the sun bounce off the soft waves of Lake Monona.
Around us, couples relaxed at narrow wooden picnic tables drinking New Glarus' Spotted Cow, Karben4's Fantasy Factory IPA, Ale Asylum's Curl Pilsner or One Barrel's Penguin Pale Ale ($6 for a half liter).
A family of four dunked doughy sections of an enormous soft pretzel ($7) into a cup of honey mustard sauce ($2) before the kids took off to play with an oversized game of Jenga, where the blocks resembled two-by-fours.
Other park patrons tried out kayaks and paddleboards. They were available to rent from Rutabaga Paddlesports, which shares the refurbished beach house with the biergarten.
On this afternoon, the new venture was serving its purpose exactly — to invigorate an underused portion of Olbrich Park, revitalize the existing beach house and encourage the community to enjoy the waterfront while creating a sense of "place." Brought to fruition by the BKM Group in response to a call for proposals by the City of Madison, the biergarten opened in June as a public/private partnership.
Before it opened, debate about the open air pub had been ongoing for more than a year among city council members, the mayor and residents of the surrounding neighborhood. Concerns were raised about parking capacity at the site, noise from live music, and serving alcohol on the grounds.
To address these issues, the biergarten has clearly defined boundaries, staff aggressively checking IDs and explicit regulations against smoking, bringing in alcohol, grilling and disorderly conduct of any kind.
BKM Group co-owner Mike Bare said there was initial pushback on dogs not being allowed in the park, but patrons are generally good about following the rules.
"We've heard almost universal praise from customers on social media and in reviews," Bare said. "We wanted this to be a family-friendly space that respects the neighbors and other park users."
The biergarten has already been very popular — according to Bare, it regularly hits its 240-person capacity on the weekends.
"We see customers from all backgrounds," Bare said, "people who come to the park for sports, a lot of parents with young children, and a lot of picnicking, which is welcome. We also see a lot of birthday parties and after work happy hours."
When scouting the food and drink offerings for the Olbrich Biergarten, Bare set out to work with local producers for the German-inspired menu.
"A German soft pretzel was a given, but we wanted them to be giant," he said. "We tried several local bakers and settled on Clasen's, who have made thousands of them for us."
Our giant pretzel was chewy and satisfying, though too much for us to eat in one sitting. (In the future I would skip the off-putting, viscous honey mustard.)
In addition to honey mustard, diners can try their pretzels with a traditional Bavarian dip called obatzda, traditionally made from a soft ripened cheese (the biergarten uses Brie), butter, spices and beer ($3). A trip to Germany inspired traditional Nuremburg brats on the menu, three small links made by Underground Meats.
An old take on a new favorite, they were served on a slice of Clasen's farmer rye bread, which can be supplemented with mustard and sauerkraut ($6). Less greasy than the traditional overstuffed sausage, these sausages far outpaced the backyard barbecue version, even if it was challenging to eat gracefully.
Fresh and squeaky cheese curds come from Farmer John's Cheese in Dodgeville ($5). And for a healthier option, the Mediterranean restaurant Banzo provides the hummus and pita bread for the biergarten's hummus plate, garnished with carrots and tomatoes.
Root beer floats would be a sweet ending for a lovely afternoon, featuring Sprecher root beer with a scoop of Cedar Crest ice cream on top.
The spirit of "gemütlichkeit" — German for warmth and good cheer — was certainly on display when we visited. True, some items seemed overpriced (the pretzel was by far with worst offender here).
But it's hard to imagine a better view on a sunny Madison afternoon.