It was a Thursday afternoon and the surfers were out in full force in the middle of Munich. If you had given me 10 or even 20 guesses which European city has a full-blown surf scene in the middle of an expansive central park, Munich would not have been on the list, but here they were in the English Garden, clad in wet suits, catching the waves that rolled through the Eisbach, a narrow channel of the Isar River, which flows from the Alps. Onlookers gawked and snapped photos.
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 in the shadows of Doric columns. 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 - all blond wood, crisp edges and high ceilings - that opened in April 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 took a seat at the huge table that serves as a bar on the other side and sipped on a Me So Miso, an Eastern twist on an Old-Fashioned with Japanese 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 earned a Michelin star twice. 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, and 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 - both big and baby varieties. I had chatted earlier with Pascal Leubecher, a young bartender whose drinks often involve the fresh herbs he keeps in small pails on the bar, like parsley. I asked him if he ever tried pairing his culinary-style cocktails with the food. Yes, he said. Would he? Of course, he said. 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 never to arrive in a foreign city without a list of recommendations from those who know it. For Munich, I asked my friend Hank Strummer, a globe-trotting Black Forest-based DJ who I met in New York. He told me to visit his friend Jörg Wizigmann, 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, like the watermelon and goat cheese salad I tasted, but it's the basement bar with a low-slung ceiling and Art Deco-style furnishings that draws creative types to this hangout in Haidhausen, an idyllic district near the English Garden. Jörg is a musician whose brassy ensemble band G.Rag und die Landlergschwister has played numerous Oktoberfests since it was founded in 1999. He and a bandmate opened Polka as a platform for local musicians and DJs. "We just wanted to open the kind of place we liked to hang out it," he told me.
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 like 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, their labels detailed illustrations of herbs and flowers and Alpine landscapes and Art Nouveau-style women. It's a sight that shouldn't be missed. It took owner Kristijan Krolo more than seven years to assemble the 350-plus bottles in the collection, which includes rare vintages dating as far back as 1916.
Bartenders here are amari evangelists who speak reverently of the stuff. "Do you want something elegant or something more?" Ben, my bartender, asked. Yes, I replied. He knowingly poured me a flight of four that ranged from sweet and fruity to dark, honeyed and mysterious and evoked sitting in the grass on moonlit nights. 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. An assortment of international travelers swapped stories over Munich Mules, a gin-based twist on the classic. The hotel's radio station streamed indie rock and French rap, flatbread pizzas streamed out of the 24-hour kitchen, and beer flowed from the similarly round-the-clock 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 historic tourist-dense Odeonsplatz, was opened in 1982 by Charles Schumann, who's something of a legend not only for the bar, which has scored top prizes in global bar awards, 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 (and not just because of the scores of Campari bottles lined up like a brigade of marching soldiers on a high bar shelf). With the appearance of a spruced-up Iggy Pop, the former model greets business executives in suits, women in teetering heels and other familiar regulars with cordial kisses and banter.
The bartenders, who wear crisp white shirts and ties, 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, Cihan opened Circle in January 2016. The dramatic space is all mirrors and glamour. The bartender is set against a curtain backdrop. A frequent visitor to Japan, Cihan takes cues from Tokyo bar culture. Precision is a hallmark here. Newfangled infusions and grilled fruit play a role in the drinks, but nothing is inaccessible.
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.
Soft-spoken and engaging, David gave me a history lesson on the place, showing me photos of celebrity visitors and of his dad, who designed every last detail - the width of the bar, determining the distance between patron and barman; the angle of the rim. He 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, where I’ll find the past and present intersect.