The 1980 espionage movie Hopscotch opens on the streets of Munich during Germany's celebration of Oktoberfest. After leisurely scanning a parade, the camera discovers a wry-faced Walter Matthau. He's standing on a balcony overlooking a beer garden. Located in a vast indoor hall, customers crowd the long wooden tables. Everyone's drinking down a tall stein of beer. Getting drunk in public, with friends and strangers alike, is the country's custom. That conviviality, accompanied by the close proximity of one's tableside neighbors, alas, looks like something from a lost world.
At some point in the future, downtown Oakland's Hofkuche has enough space to allow for a Hopscotch-sized crowd. For now, the co-founders have adopted a safer and more spartan approach. During daytime brunch and lunch hours, the outside patio is cordoned off into the shape of a rectangle. The rest of the parking lot opens up at night when the staff sets up more socially-distanced tables.
If the alley on 25th Street looks familiar to locals, Hofkuche is now the full-time occupant of the Forage Kitchen outdoor event space. Iso Rabins and Matt Johansen, the Forage co-creators, are part of a larger group of Hofkuche co-founders. One of them is Fabi Wiest, who opened San Francisco's Suppenkuche in 1993. Both of Wiest's German menus are related to each other but Hofkuche is designed to be more informal with smaller plates including pretzels, potato salad, spatzle and bratwurst. You're encouraged to pair all of these items with beer.
If you prefer a hot dog that's crisply blistered rather than boiled in a watery pan, substitute a bratwurst for the frankfurter. The taste of the bratwurst stands up nicely to the sauerkraut and mustard. Hofkuche's sauerkraut is unusual because it lacks the occasionally off-putting, pungent scent of a cabbage that's been pickling for far too long. It's a supporting flavor, fairly delicate, rather than a domineering one. And when you're presented with the opportunity to try a fresh pretzel or cheesy knot, take it. They're chewy and baked to a brown that's dark as rye.
In a telephone interview, Johansen and Wiest addressed the challenges related to opening a biergarten, with its shared common space, during a pandemic. "Every week we work on different things that could be changed to make it a better experience for people coming in," Johansen says. The management team at Hofkuche has implemented systems to thin crowds. Customers place their orders upon entry and reorder another round of drinks from a different window so there's no doubling up of lines. They've also started to place clean-table indicators. Each week, Johansen adds, "We ask customers how their experiences are and then we change as we go."
Wiest, who is from Munich, says every part of his hometown has its own beer garden. Each one represents a particular neighborhood and serves food that's unique to its own set of denizens. Participating in this new venture reminds Wiest of what it was like to open Suppenkuche in the 1990s version of Hayes Valley. "I love to be in Oakland because there's more diversity and more young people," he says. He feels the process has reinvigorated him. For him, Hofkuche isn't about reinventing German cuisine or the concept of a beer garden. Since Covid-19 has changed the way both of his restaurants do business, Wiest's creative process is newly engaged with the daily routine of perfecting the menu's familiar dishes.
Johansen and Rabins opened Forage Kitchen as a local food and restaurant incubator in 2014. Local bakers and chefs such as Andrew Lawrence Schiff of Oak & Fig Baking and Angie Lin of Good to Eat Dumplings used Forage's shared commercial kitchen as a helpful launching pad. Johansen mentions that the neighborhood has changed dramatically since they first signed their lease, saying, "Oakland reminded me of the way that San Francisco used to be." He recalls the many people opening different businesses, and the collaboration. "There's such a special feeling in Oakland. To open a restaurant here, it's been a dream."
Hofkuche, open Wednesday to Friday 12–4pm for lunch and 5–8pm for dinner, Saturday and Sunday 11am to 3pm for brunch and 3–8pm for regular service. 478 25th St., Oakland. firstname.lastname@example.org. hofkuche.com.