Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Berghoff Oktoberfest

On Friday J. called to see if I wanted to go to The Berghoff Oktoberfest. The stage used to be set up on Adams Street, but perhaps because of construction and other issues this year the event was confined to Federal Plaza. I had gone only once or twice, ages ago, so I said, "Yes."

J. met me at the post office, where I had gone in search of stamps. All the self-service machines were empty and bore stickers with copy about being slated for removal from service. I didn't look closely, but I didn't notice that they would be replaced. I hope they are, because removal of self service seems like a step backward to me. I observed a young woman who was even more interested in them; she was taking photographs of their hulking carcasses.

Outside the plaza was crowded, smoky, and loud—three circumstances that I rarely find conducive to fun. The entertainment was disappointing. The last time (ages ago) I had seen a band at Oktoberfest, it consisted of middle-aged and older Germans in lederhosen, playing the accordion and tuba, and singing German folk and drinking songs—just the thing for Oktoberfest. This time, the band (too loud) consisted of young men in brightly colored, strange hats performing 1970s covers badly. Oktoberfest had become a generic American festival with beer, food, and rock. I hope the German version of Oktoberfest is still German.

After fighting the crowd to get to the food, I suggested skipping the festivities and having dinner at The Berghoff. J. agreed, although I think he felt a bit cheated of the party atmosphere.

We hadn't been to The Berghoff since the old restaurant closed a year and a half ago. The servers were dressed in Oktoberfest T shirts, but still wore formal black aprons. J. thought the woodwork looked lighter and that curtains had been removed so that more light was streaming in the windows. The tables didn't seem as close together, and it looks like some were removed. I don't even recall whether tablecloths were used in the old restaurant, but although my memory for detail is poor, something in the setting and atmosphere felt different. It seemed less crowded, more subdued.

The menu has been reduced considerably, with the various steaks that used to tempt me all gone. There seem to be fewer German selections, too. J. ordered the wiener schnitzel or sauerbraten, while I asked for a bunless burger. The side dishes are no longer included, so J. requested red cabbage. The service was pretty fast (not something the old Berghoff was noted for), but I was presented with J.'s plate, and J. got the burger.

I'd heard that, long before The Berghoff closed, the experience was no longer the one that long-term Chicago residents remembered so fondly. It's hard for me to say; my first few visits were made long ago when I was young and easily impressed. Whether it's because I'm older and jaded, or The Berghoff's standard is indeed different, there's nothing special about it anymore. The food is indifferent, the atmosphere bland, and the energy and buzz gone.

The things that made The Berghoff memorable have been forgotten.

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