Before you can feel that you have been properly welcomed into Munich's heart, you have to sit and take in the atmosphere of a genuine Bierhalle. Nestled in among far more modern shops in Munich’s Kaufingerstrasse, leading away from the Marienplatz, is the Augustiner Bierkeller.
The Augustiner is a very large hall, longer than it is wide, on the ground floor of an ancient half-timbered building. (Whether genuinely old or simply rebuilt after the bombings of World War Two, as in many German cities, it is difficult to tell.) It is cosy and snug, relaxing, and, despite the number of customers, not crowded. The atmosphere is friendly and pleasant. Fresh cooking smells pervade the place along with the rich aroma of the beers, and this could easily become your favourite pub.
The enormous floor plan is divided up into numerous sections, each the responsibility of one or a small team of waiters and waitresses. The vaulted ceilings are high, disappearing, church-like into the gloom above. The floors are of red flagstones, and the walls are richly and decoratively panelled up to about shoulder height in wood the colour of ebony, the kind of colour that only comes as a patina.
You sit down on benches at solid, light oak wooden tables. The waiters wear white shirts with black trousers and black waistcoats, some have aprons, and purses bulge from back pockets. They are not all young. If you are lucky you will get a real character, with a sparkle in his eye, who has been here decades, and is almost part of the furniture. The waitresses wear variations on the regional costume, the Dirndlkleid, usually a long, voluminous red or green dress, with a white apron, and a low cut blouse on top, their purses in belts around their waist.
A group of men in their early twenties sits in animated conversation at one table, their vase shaped glasses of beer before them. Middle-aged and well-heeled citizens sit comfortably at other tables reading, with the air of people having no need to hurry. Couples while away lunchtime over two or three courses. An elderly gentleman sits alone in one corner, reading a newspaper and gently puffing on a pipe. The waiting staff buzz around efficiently, unhurriedly and politely, nothing is too much trouble, is the food ok, how about another beer?
This is a meeting place as much as anything, but also somewhere to eat and drink as much or as little as you like. The atmosphere is remarkably hushed for so many people. Business-like, practical and unhurried. The fare is about as traditional as you can get, from powerful soups through an innumerable variety of sausages with sauerkraut and mustard, to pork, veal and beef dishes all with some style of potatoes and vegetables. This is a menu with which to fortify yourself against the cold outside. Not lacking in calories, it is top quality, traditional, basic food.
The beer is also traditional. I order a Hefeweizen, an unfiltered wheat beer that retains its yeast sediment in the bottom of the bottle, so that it pours out deliberately cloudy and very aromatic. Nectar. Agreed by most to be among the best beers on the planet. My lunch arrives. Two Weisswurst, white sausage, another speciality of Munich, that come floating in a tureen of boiling water, so that you have to fish them out to put them on your plate. They are delicately flavoured and contain herbs. I am given a choice of mustards.
You ask for the bill. “Ich komme gleich”, the waitress says, “I’ll be right with you”. And disappears for ten minutes. She returns to write out what you’ve had on a small slip of notepad and, as always, you are surprised at how little it costs, just a couple of pounds, and you are sent on your way with another piece of Gemütlichkeit in your back pocket.
In Kaufingerstrasse, just off Marienplatz in central Munich
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