Friday, October 8, 2010

A sample of Bohemia in the Big Apple

If you’ve ever traveled to New York City, you know that some days the city can be a little too much hustle and bustle. Even if you’re on vacation, you may feel the need to escape your vacation when you’ve had too much of the Manhattan rat race.

On a recent trip to New York, I was seeking just such an escape. And New York is the city with something for everyone, so relief was just a short train ride away. Tucked away in a corner of Astoria, Queens, is one of the oldest European-style beer gardens in the United States. I was lucky enough to be there as The Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden kicked off its centennial celebration.

During the 1800s, Czech and Slovak immigrants were making their way to the U.S. searching for a better life. Many settled in New York. In 1892, The Bohemian Citizens’ Benevolent Society of Astoria was formed with the mission of preserving traditional Bohemian culture in this new land. The society offered dramatic presentations, lectures, language lessons and more. It became a social hub for the community and in 1910 the Society laid the cornerstone for what would become the Bohemian Hall.

At one time, there were over 800 German and European-style beer gardens all over the city, three in Astoria alone. Today, The Bohemian Hall is the only historic hall and garden that survives. The facility was built on what was once farmland in the borough of Queens. First to be constructed was just a small hall, but soon a larger hall was added that also served as a gymnasium. By 1919, an outside beer garden had been completed—just in time for 10 years of prohibition. But those Czechs are tough and the beer garden survived and flourished.

The Benevolent Society still owns and maintains the garden, though now it is in the center of a vibrant urban neighborhood. It’s right next to the elevated train tracks, but once you step into the garden, it’s as if you’re in a different country and the city begins to melt away. (The beer probably helps with this process a little bit.)

In addition to a beer garden, the Society also maintains a Czech and Slovak school where language lessons are offered tuition-free. According to their website, lessons for school-aged children follow Czech and Slovak curriculum standards and also include other culturally-rich activities to help young people understand their heritage.

The main building is somewhat sprawling with lots of smaller rooms and a cozy bar as you enter. But step out into the spacious garden and you feel as if you’ve entered a rural landscape in Bohemia. The open-air space is shaded by large trees and a tent. Dozens of picnic tables are lined up end to end and you instantly make new friends by finding a spot among the other guests. A stage and a dance floor are at one end. The night I was there, the folklore group Zemplinčane SVOJINA was just tuning up for session of folk dancing. This was the beginning of the centennial celebration, so there was a special emphasis on traditional folk music. But the place also offers “80s Night” and other special events aimed at attracting younger patrons, so there’s always something for everyone.

However, even though the bar does offer weekly Ladies Nights, this place has much more of a family feel. Kids are welcome. Grandparents were enjoying themselves along with the grandkids when I was there.

The Bohemian Hall has an extensive menu of Czech and Slovak dishes. Czech entrees tend to range from $8 to $14 and most are filling platters of meat and potatoes.

They also offer a good selection of beers with an emphasis on traditional Boehemian selections. I sampled a Golden Phesant, my first Slovakian beer. It was somewhat darker and heartier than the light Budweis-style beers I have been sampling. Not as dark as something like Guinness, but definitely a shade or two darker than Czechvar or Pilsner Urquell (which are also available at Bohemian Hall).

Obviously, this place draws large crowds on summer weekends when all New Yorkers are seeking an inexpensive escape from the sweltering city, but if you ask me, it’s definitely worth a ride on the N train to enjoy this charming destination. Visit their website...

-Rex Fuller, Opera Colorado Director of Marketing

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