A FEW years ago, I pitched what I thought was a great idea for the city:A beer garden at LOVE Park. I could just imagine the lunchtime crowds, the evening diners with their families, the skateboarders and foodies, people just hanging out – all of them coming together and enjoying the city’s finest, freshest beer at one of its most scenic locations.
The reception from city reps who oversee the popular but underutilized park was colder than an ice-filled keg bucket.
Beer? Forget it, they sniffed.
We went back-and-forth awhile, trying to find some common ground. Eventually, they seemed willing to consider the idea, but only if it wasn’t called a “beer garden. “
I chalked it up to patrician snobbery left over from the days when the park system was administered by Chestnut Hill wine-sippers at the old Fairmount Park Commission.
Skip forward to summer 2014, when malt and hops will pour at no fewer than six beer gardens across the city – including one on Eakins Oval, which, last time I checked, is part of the city’s park system. Beer gardens are suddenly so popular, the city’s tourism marketing agency is promoting a series of visits on Friday afternoons this summer.
I’m tempted to say I was ahead of my time, except that beer gardens have been around for centuries.
Indeed, back in the mid-1800s, the city’s largest beer garden was at what would become one of Fairmount Park’s chief features, the grounds of the Lemon Hill mansion. It attracted as many as 10,000 people on a single afternoon – many of them German immigrants who would enjoy and popularize this newfangled Bavarian lager that had been brewed just steps away in Brewerytown.
The city’s Victorian era aristocrats cringed at the working classes enjoying their Sunday afternoons. “We remember it in its prime, one of the most elaborately laid out and fitted up places in the country,” wrote one. “But with the advent of picnics and lager beer, came violence void of sense of object. “
Soon, the Lemon Hill beer garden was closed.
When the Centennial Exposition opened in 1876 in Fairmount Park, alcohol was banned. Visitors in search of liquid refreshment were directed to the sparkling waters of the garish Catholic Total Abstinence Fountain (still standing in front of the Mann Center).
The fair’s organizers later OK’d beer sales, but only after they watched their profits dwindle with the thirsty crowds who instead headed for the “Shantyville” saloons along neighboring Parkside Avenue.
The sudsy relief was short-lived. By 1890, a census report showed that there were no beer gardens anywhere in Philadelphia. After Prohibition, various state liquor laws forced booze indoors, behind shaded windows where no one could see the sinners.
That’s a wordy history to make the point that what’s old is new again . . .
Good, cold beer in the great outdoors. Who’d have thunk?
Beer garden Fridays
Visit Philly’s Beer Garden Series hosts happy hour food and beer specials at a half-dozen sudsy spots from 4 to 7 p.m. on Fridays this summer. Catch up with the fun at:
_ Spruce Street Harbor Park (Penn’s Landing), tomorrow and July 25. What the ingenious Waterfront Winterfest did for butt-freezing dead-of-winter nights, the summertime Harbor Park will do for the sweating-into-your-BVDs dog days of summer.
The floating restaurant and waterfront park will feature free music, movies, a cooling hammock garden, fire pits and, yup, plenty of good beer. Open through Aug. 31.
_ PHS Pop-Up Garden (1438 South St., Center City), July 11. Last year’s South Broad Street pop-up from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society was one of the highlights of summer in the city. This year’s location is next door to that Caribbean gem, the Jamaican Jerk Hut, so bring your own curried goat. Schedule TBA.
_ The Oval (Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Art Museum), July 18 and Aug. 15. Eakins Oval, that eight-acre swath formerly known as the Ugly Parking Lot in Front of the Art Museum, is transformed into a public space with miniature golf, entertainment, food trucks and a beer garden. Open Tuesday-Sunday till 9 p.m., starting July 17.
_ Frankford Hall (1210 Frankford Ave., Fishtown), Aug. 1. A slice of Bavaria in funky Fishtown, this beer garden is as authentic as it gets. Try the house beer, Hopster Hefe, from Fegley’s Brew Works, or go all-in with a 5-liter keg can of DAB Dortmunder Lager. Open year-round.
_ Independence Beer Garden (100 Independence Mall West), Aug. 8 and 22. Look for great food from “Top Chef” contestant Travis Masar at the very birthplace of America, at 6th and Market streets. Opening slated for July 4.
_ Morgan’s Pier (221 N. Columbus Blvd., Penn’s Landing), Aug. 29. A killer view of the Ben Franklin Bridge soaring over the Delaware makes this a go-to riverside destination. And, now, the cabana-like bars will be serving draft Yards Petty’s Island Ale, a new, limited-edition cream ale poured from a nitro tap. Now open.