Historically, a Rathskeller is a German name for a bar, pub or drinking establishment located in a basement, or below the street level. My first exposure to such a thing was back in the mid 1980’s in Los Angeles where I was visiting a good friend and he took me to a now forgotten place situated below street level in a busy downtown area. Plainly appointed, only picnic tables adorned the concrete floor, and mostly bare walls and a lone upright piano stood in the corner where a featured, notable speed beer drinker entertained the crowd with both engaging tunes and an occasional speed drinking demonstration or in response to a challenger who thought he or she could do better. Oh, and they only served plastic pitchers of cheap domestic draft beer. That was the only beer on the menu. People rolled with abandon, and it was all part of the mood. I had a blast.
I don’t know of any rathskellers in Alaska, but I know of a place that reminds me of one, only it’s about as opposite as it comes when I examine the classical definition of a subterranean, rowdy, mood-oriented place. My exposure to this particular venue came years ago as a writer for my weekly column in the Anchorage Press and I’d discovered Schwabenhof, a little German-like place perched atop a hill at mile 7.5 on the Palmer/Wasilla highway. Back then, the food writer for the Press and I went on a double date with our spouses and decided to check this place out.
We drove from Anchorage in the spring when Ma Nature throws some interesting tricks at travelers including very icy roads and hard approaches to places in peculiar settings. The gravel road from the highway up to the pub was iced over and even in four wheel drive, it took two (then) strong males to get out and help push the rig to coach it up the hill to the small, inviting, octagonal enclave that overlooks a great cross-section of the Matanuska Valley. Huffing, puffing, and thirsty, we all made it to the top, scrambled out, found the entrance, and stomped our boots going into the warm, evenly lit, inviting atmosphere replete with sounds of German music, the smell of German food and peals of laughter from happy revelers from around what looked like a chapter out of Goldilocks. with oversized tables and chairs fashioned from local birch and recovered wood from the then recent Miller’s Reach fire.
We were instantly delighted. An ancient woman with a cigarette dangling from her lips was walking around belting out German beer drinking tunes on an ancient accordion and every so often the bartender would wail out at full volume, encouraging the rowdy and willing clientele to join in. This is where I learned the famous Ein Prosit der Gemuetlichkeit song. The old lady would start pumping the accordion and the original owner, Bill Weith, would put down his bar towel, hoist his mug, lean backwards and start bellowing out the words. It was impossible not to join in.
Fast forward a decade and not much has changed. The current owner, Tom Robertson, bought the place because he loved it and wanted to preserve it. “The original owner had a dream of owning a Bavarian style bar and German restaurant,” he says. “He ran it for over a decade, then decided to step away from it.” Robertson wasn’t really in the market for a bar when Schwabenhof became available. “I wasn’t out looking to buy a bar. I live right around the corner. I felt comfortable here; it wasn’t really a rowdy place and I liked the atmosphere and the people. The owner was needing to sell. Someone needed to buy this place and I thought I could make it successful and I wanted to see this place stay,” he says.
The other undeniable feature of Schwabenhof is the beer. Even a decade ago, I was notably impressed with the draft lineup that today still features primarily classic Euro imports including such delights as Spaten Lager and Oktoberfest, Warsteiner Pils, Bass Ale, Hoegaarden Wit, Bitburger Pils and one of my all time favorites, Franziskaner Hefe, to name a few of the selections from the 21 taps. Local offerings also color the line up. As importantly, there’s no crap on tap from the mass-produced domestic light, rice and ice genre that seems to obscure the better offerings at other establishments. Even without 100 percent verification, I’m fairly certain that Schwabenhof boasts the biggest tap line in the valley.
There is limited food availability at Schwabenhof due to current kitchen limitations, but Robertson’s working on that. “It never became a full-fledged restaurant,” he says. “We’re looking at increasing the menu, making the bread fresh and evaluate what we can really do with the kitchen we have. We now have some limited German meals and cold German picnics.” I appreciate the venue’s use of Mt. McKinley meats from Fairbanks and their featuring of a bratwurst that’s over a foot long.
A large outside deck that faces the north and east affords a great 180 degree view of a good section of the valley. “We have a big barbeque out there and anyone can bring their own stuff up and throw it on the grill,” says Robertson. This is a nice touch that was carried over from previous management.
Things are obviously hopping during the annual Oktoberfest season. Where most venues will celebrate this global beer event once a year, Schwabenhof does it in style. “We have seasonal beers for Oktoberfest,” says Robertson. The O’fest is obviously a big event here. We celebrate it for five weeks.” The Alaska Blaskapelle Band is a standard event as are other German-oriented bands during this time. And, music is always a feature at Schwabenhof. Expect music at least four nights a week including live music on Friday and Saturday nights and an open mic jam session on Sunday evenings. Schwabenhof is open daily at noon and during the week stays open at least until midnight and sometimes longer depending on the crowd. The bar is open until at least 2 am on the weekends and often longer.
Schwabenhof is a nifty, cozy little venue that holds a lot of charm, and a draft lineup that will be bringing me back for a long time to come.