It's not like Biergarten needs any more press; a visit to the Hayes Valley beer garden (a spinoff of uberpopular Suppenkche down the street) on a sunny afternoon will tell you that. There are almost always lines spilling out from the chain-link fence that separates the bar from Octavia Street and the urbane Patricia's Green park across the way. Inside the fence, a happy mix of young and old, hip and not-so-hip S.F. residents raise liters of beer, eat sausages and deviled pickled eggs, and on colder evenings, huddle under wool blankets provided by the bar. Biergarten is approaching its year-and-a-half anniversary, and nature has smoothed some of the prison-yard starkness of the place when it first opened: There are now vines growing on the fence and a nicely filled-out tree in the middle that acts as a hub for strings of cafe lights. Squint a little and you could be in Munich.
Biergarten is part of the Proxy project, a collection of semi-permanent "cargotecture" buildings (so named because they're set up in metal shipping containers) designed by Envelope A+D on a two-parcel lot owned by the city. Somewhere else, it would be the coolest architecture in town, but it blends right into a city like San Francisco, where pop-ups and creative uses of urban space are more the rule than the exception. Along with Biergarten, Proxy contains Ritual Coffee Roasters, Smitten Ice Cream, SoSF bike tours, and the two-story cargotecture wonder of Aether clothing, as well as a rotating band of food trucks and pop-ups that set up shop on the weekends.
Supervisor London Breed ensured that Proxy would stay a part of Hayes Valley for the foreseeable future when she announced in June that its lease was going to be extended through 2021, calling the project "far better for the community, far more enriching, and more fun than a parking lot, which was the area's previous use."
It's good news for burger fans. I went to Biergarten because I'd been hearing for months about its incredible hamburgers, offered only on Wednesdays (well, sometimes on Thursdays if they have extras). It's a Prather Ranch patty, on a Firebrand bun, with all kinds of seasonal toppings, and it turned out that my sources had been correct — this is a hell of a burger, easily a contender for one of the best in the city. The beef was medium-rare and just on the right side of greasy, and topped with height-of-summer produce: bits of sweet corn, heirloom tomato slices, arugula, with a slice of salted yellow watermelon on the side. Its German heritage was evident in a large dollop of coarse mustard. Except for the corn, it was a simple, straightforward burger.
The beer garden has extended its initial menu with plenty of items that are available on days besides Wednesday, and are no less worthy of your attention. The cuisine is less German and more Cal-German, a little more playful than its parent restaurant Suppenkche, but at its heart a riff on meat-and-potatoes cooking. Bratwurst is expertly grilled with a crust on each side and bursting with juices and mild flavor, though a German restaurant that can't make sausage should just go ahead and close up shop. Hot dogs have a satisfying snap, and pork belly sliders with aioli basically melt away on your tongue. All of it is a reminder that Germans have a way with pork.
Almost as much as they have a way with beer. Biergarten has six taps that rotate some with the seasons, but there's always a fruity hefeweizen, a caramely bock, and a crisp pilsner available in glasses, half-liters, and liters (go ahead, get the liter — it's the festive thing to do). Little bottles of Underberg, the great bitter that cuts through fatty food, are available, as is lemonade and a few brisk German wines.
A necessary accompaniment to beers, whether you're hungry or not, is pretzels, and these are the ideal: crusty and bready, grazed with coarse grains of salt. They come on their own or stuffed with cheese and vegetables, in a delicious bastardization of a grilled cheese sandwich. I had the mozzarella, tomato, and basil version — a caprese on pretzel bread — which was good for a lighter meal, though a little bland. I wished I'd ordered the version with blue cheese and caramelized onions, but that's just an excuse to go back.
I would anyway, if just for the pickled deviled eggs, as pink as Easter eggs. The mustardy flavor and vinegar from the pickling is a nice counterpoint to the filling's creaminess. Pickles feature heavily on the menu in general. They accompany many dishes, and are also available on their own, in a "pickle jar," which has seasonal vegetables preserved in brilliant hues. I enjoyed the carrots, wondered about the artichoke heart, didn't especially care for the turnips, and forgave the twee Mason jar serving vessel because it seemed Euro-chic in this context.
This is all cold-weather food, which makes it perfect for an open-air restaurant in a town like San Francisco, where 360 nights out of the year it will get cold enough to need the blankets when the sun goes down. The food quality is all the more astonishing considering they're working out of a kitchen in a shipping container. All in all, not bad for a parking lot.