It's an easy game, this reviewing of restaurants and bars.
In most cases, the fish really do just lie there in the barrel for the critic to shoot. One mocks the scene, questions the authenticity of the menu, harrumphs into one’s make-believe ascot and gives the almighty thumb's-up or thumb’s-down. And everyone can play along on Yelp!
If you're really good, you even get to score it all on a clever rating scale. Since stars are passe and bells are taken, my editor and I discussed pictograms like unicorns or powdered wigs or maybe even Ben Franklin or Kyle Kendrick heads as our scale. We imagined restaurateurs agonizing over whether they received two or three Kyle Kendricks, the difference between success or failure. But then we dropped the idea. Because if we're totally honest, being that kind of restaurant critic is a pretty empty thing.
My outings over the past couple of weeks to the city's beer gardens - in particular, Stephen Starr's new Frankford Hall in Fishtown - clearly drove home this point.
For instance, I could tell you that the jagerschnitzel at Frankford Hall was a little dry and overcooked, or that the traditional spaetzle, cheese and onion was a wet mess, or that the weisswurst should have just been boiled rather than grilled. I could sneeringly point out, as several blogs have, the incongruity of glitzy Starr opening his theme-park beer garden smack in the middle of Fishtown hipsterdom.
But then how would I square the fact that I'd spent just about the most pleasant Saturday of the summer, day-drinking with my friends Chris and Jane, both of whom happened to live in Munich and could have nitpicked Frankford Hall all day long?
Chris, who lived more than dozen years in Germany, gave Frankford Hall high marks for authenticity - in particular the German potato salad and the bratwurst and red cabbage - though he had a few gripes, beginning with the beer list. "Pils has no place in a beer garden. Kolsch has no place in a beer garden," he said, noting that both styles are popular in northern Germany, not Bavaria, spiritual home of the beer garden.
We sat at long, wooden tables in the cozy gravel courtyard and drank liters of Spaten Oktoberfest and Paulaner Munich Lager and Köstritzer Schwarzbier, and ate gigantic pretzels with spicy mustard that might just be the best (and at $8, the most expensive) in the city. Over the several hours we spent drinking, a sort of nitpicking became the running joke.
"While I like the reggae music," Chris said, "this kind of music has no place in a beer hall. It should be oompah music."
There are stacks of games available in Frankford Hall, and we saw several groups playing Jenga at the long tables in the gravel courtyard. "Jenga has no place in a beer garden," Chris said.
"Do you want to play ping-pong?" I asked.
"To be clear, ping-pong has no place in a beer garden," Chris said, with a laugh. "Not that it matters, of course."
"The main thing is that a beer garden is a commitment," he continued. "With a beer garden, you're not just dropping in for one and then heading on your way to Ikea." What matters is simply this: Do I want to spend several hours here drinking beer? And perhaps ordering a little food at the counter? And perhaps drinking some more beer? In that regard, Frankford Hall is a wild success, though at $13 per liter, you may go broke doing it very often.
Other beer gardens
While Frankford Hall is supposed to be open year-round, a handful of seasonal beer gardens have popped up in Philadelphia over the past couple of years, most of them open into the still-warm days of September and October. Philadelphia is a having a beer garden mini-moment.
Of course, it must be said that not all of our beer gardens are completely successful. Hop Angel Brauhaus in Fox Chase has a strong beer list, but its space is awkward. Unless "beer garden" translates to "12 tables in an alley with a mural of the Alps on the wall" for you, I wouldn't necessarily go out of my way.
Sometimes it's a matter of semantics. Silk City in Northern Liberties calls its colorful, inventive outdoor area a "beer garden." But it's really an outdoor dining area, with table service. I would like to see someone try to commandeer a table for six hours one afternoon. Besides, as one friend said, "With the faux-funky, look-at-how-crazy-we-are vibe, I feel like I'm in Baltimore."
Until recently, the only place in the city that identified itself as a "beer garden" was the obscure little bar tucked in the back of the Reading Terminal Market, the one with the kelly-green Formica tables and bar, near the restrooms.
The market's garden has a few decent beers like Yards Philadelphia Pale Ale and Stoudts Scarlet Lady Ale on tap, and it does share one thing in common with traditional Bavarian beer gardens - you can bring in your own food.
I recently spent a very pleasant afternoon at that beer garden, eating a delicious roast pork and broccoli rabe sandwich from DiNic's and watching a Phillies game, along with a strange cast of bar characters that included one woman with no front teeth who referred to the friendly bartender as "Babygirl." (Her name is Danielle.)
Even the Reading Terminal Beer Garden has big plans. It recently was acquired by Iovine Brothers produce market, and later this month construction will begin on a new kitchen and other improvements. The hope is that the market will allow patrons to carry out beer, so they can sip while they shop.
A trip to Memphis
Perhaps my favorite beer garden, however, is Memphis Taproom's narrow, modest space in Kensington. Although Memphis Taproom has always been a prime beer-and-food destination, its beer garden is something even more special.
Outside, amid long, wooden tables, they park a bright-turquoise food truck where you buy beer by the can from craft breweries like Oskar Blues, Anderson Valley, Sly Fox and 21st Amendment. But the real treat is to get one of the finest gourmet hot dogs in the city ($5), along with beer-battered pickles ($5).
There is something unbelievably satisfying about eating, say, a Tuperello - a hot dog slathered with pulled pork and coleslaw - or a Suicide - a dog with roasted jalapeño, Sriracha and onion rings - and washing it down with excellent cold beer from a can. Around us at other wooden tables were folks from the neighborhood - a young mom and dad with a baby in a stroller, tattooed hipsters with dogs, a middle-aged couple on a date - but we didn't feel at all like outsiders.
I'm not going to say that I'm totally over fancy fine dining. But the best aspects of the beer-garden trend suggest that diners are probably looking for a totally different style of eating and drinking and going out, and that the city's restaurateurs are listening. In any case, on that particular evening, Memphis Taproom's beer garden would certainly have deserved four Kyle Kendricks. I mean, if that's the sort of thing you need.
Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.
1210 Frankford Ave.
2331 E. Cumberland St.
Hop Angel Brauhaus
7980 Oxford Ave.
The Beer Garden by Iovine Brothers
Reading Terminal Market
1136 Arch St.