BierBeisl Imbiss, Bernhard Mairinger's new Austrian restaurant downtown, deserves to have more customers lounging at its long, wooden tables. I mean that in the sense of the place being too good to sit half-empty, but also in the sense that the space itself is built to be packed with merrymakers, groups of people happily drinking beer out of giant steins, shoveling fat sausages into their maws, living out a Bavarian fantasy of extreme revelry.
The new tenants of the Spring Arcade are taking quite a gamble: They're betting heavily on downtown's much ballyhooed renaissance and hoping that renaissance will extend past the always crowded Grand Central Market, beyond Josef Centeno's cluster of restaurants a couple blocks away, all the way into a refurbished vintage arcade that stretches from Broadway to Spring Street. There's no view from the street of most of the spaces in the arcade, and even when you venture down the big breezeway — the kind of retail area that used to be a common feature of most downtowns and is made for foot traffic — it's so quiet and deserted-feeling, you're not quite sure you're in the right place.
When Mairinger opened BierBeisl Imbiss, he envisioned it as a round-the-clock type of place, somewhere you'd stop in for coffee and a poppyseed Danish on your way to work and a beer at midnight and maybe also for lunch in between. It hasn't worked out quite as he'd hoped. After a couple months of keeping the restaurant open from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., the hours have been shortened, cutting out the early-morning hours on both ends of the day. There simply weren't enough breakfasters or late-night partiers to justify keeping the doors open.
The original BierBeisl, which closed in November 2013 after a couple of years in Beverly Hills, was a more formal affair, built for quiet business lunches and date-night dinners. Yet much of what people loved about the place (and it was beloved by its regulars, including me) were the sausages and German and Austrian beers — not exactly the stuff of fine dining. So Mairinger has decided to split the difference, to operate two versions of BierBeisl: this one downtown, with the name "Imbiss" tacked on (the word means "snack" in German slang), and a larger, more upscale version on the Westside, which is still in the works.
At Imbiss, the menu is simple and focuses on those sausages: fat kaesekrainer made from pork and beef, bursting with juicy cheesiness (the meat is infused with cheese); spicy Hungarian andouille thick with prickly paprika; small, peppery pork grillwurst that get a crisp sear on the casing; smooth veal weisswurst, poached in milk and mild in temperament. BierBeisl's were the best sausages in town before he closed in Beverly Hills, and they're the best sausages in town now that he's reopened here.
The Spring Arcade space also has allowed Mairinger to add a serious bakery component, and he's brought on young head baker Rene Felbermayr directly from Austria to manage the incredibly impressive line of breads, pretzels, cakes and traditional Austrian pastries.
There's a short list of sandwiches with fillings such as schnitzel or veal loaf, cones of crisp curry fries perfect for snacking on with a stein of beer, and a soup of the day that's always vegetarian (aside from salads and pastries, the soup is about the only meat-free option here) and usually showcases the extremely elegant side of Mairinger's cooking — a silken smooth cauliflower soup one day, a version of the beautifully hearty pumpkin soup he used to cook in Beverly Hills another.
A short selection of Austrian wine is available, and one evening our table was visited by a winemaker who offered us a taste of his delicious sparkling grüner veltliner while we waited for our food.
But the real fun is with the draft beers, which come in a variety of sizes and can be bought by the single stein or 10 servings at a time. You can, for instance, get 10 66-ounce pours of any draft beer for $290. This fact alone ought to give you an idea of why I think the place is built for a party.
So why hasn't the party arrived? Mairinger blames the restaurant's relative quietness on the fact that the Spring Arcade is not yet fully occupied, and neither is the loft building above it. He hopes that, when both find tenants, more people will find him.
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That's certainly a likely scenario. But I also think the setup is a problem. It's an order-from-the-counter situation, which makes sense for breakfast and lunch, when office workers are looking for a quick turnaround, but feels odd at dinner. The one time I tried to bring in a large group, the act of ordering for that many people was tricky — how to keep seven people's needs in my head, then deliver that order to the cashier, without taking notes? Do I really want to act as waitress, especially when I'm paying an automatic 15 percent service fee? Do I want to get up and go to the counter every time we want another round of drinks, or dessert, or anything at all?
Don't get me wrong, service is super friendly, and there's a manager who checks in often with tables. Mairinger himself is usually there, and he's one of the most likable guys around. A current promotion declares that people who are taller than the chef eat free (he's 6 foot 8), and I watched one night when a particularly tall fella came in and claimed that prize. The interaction between the customer and Mairinger was as fun and neighborly as a restaurant experience gets, and gave me a sense of the type of place BierBeisl Imbiss could become.
But I might suggest table service, at least in the evenings, if people are ever going to use the place the way it begs to be used. BierBeisl Imbiss could become one of downtown's true originals, a restaurant that transports you directly to Austria. Here's hoping, with the right tweaks and the building fully occupied, it'll happen. I sure want the option of beer and sausages at midnight. Don't you?
BIERBEISL IMBISS | Two stars | Spring Arcade Building, 541 S. Spring St., downtown | (213) 935-8035 | bierbeisl-imbiss.com | Mon.-Thu.,10:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 10:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. | Entrees, $9-$15 | Beer and wine | Street parking