I must confess I've ordered the pretzel at Bay Street Biergarten every single time I've been there. I can't help myself. I'm a sucker for a perfect pretzel, and Chef Jason Walker has created one that stands in a class of its own. Side it with the sinus-clearing Lusty Monk mustard and a creamy, smoky gouda cheese sauce, and you've got one helluva bar snack ($5).
They've got some pretty darned good craft beers on tap, too. Six bucks will get you a pint of Westbrook One Claw Rye or the ever-popular Bell's Two Hearted IPA.
And the space is stunning. Brick walls, high ceilings, dozens of exposed wooden beams, and 60 taps — the restaurant is the closest thing we'll get to a German beer hall in the South. But that's not all. Bay Street Biergarten has a state-of-the art draught system that lets customers pour beer for themselves.
Serve yourself — it's a novel idea. First slurpees, then froyo, and now beer. Of course, these serve-yourself tap systems exist in other major cities across the country, but Charleston is generally late to the party when it comes to fads, and Bay Street Biergarten is the first to bring the experience here. Their website says it best, "As craft beer lovers, we've always loved learning about the very best craft products in the market and thought it was about time Charleston had a place for beer lovers to not only learn about craft beer, but to experience it like never before — by pouring it for themselves."
The idea, or so they say, is to make craft beer less intimidating and more approachable. Yes, it is physically more approachable if you can walk up to the tap (never mind that the tap may be in the middle of a full community table), but novices may find it more intimidating to pour a beer on their own knowing the end result could be a glass full of foam.
If you choose to forego the service of having a beer properly poured for you, you'll be given a card with a monetary amount of your choosing, which you can use at three different stations totaling just over a dozen options. The premium for pouring your own beer doesn't always come cheap. At 74 cents an ounce, Terrapin Hopzilla cost us $11.84 a pint and a 10-ounce pour of the Holy City/Southbound collaboration, Sister City Saison, will run you $6.20.
If you have no desire to pour your own beer, don't even think about looking at what's available on the wall of taps. It's off limits without a self-serve tap card, according to our server. And that directive is about as far as the beer knowledge goes with the waitstaff. They can help you navigate the pour-it-yourself system and remind you of what beers you can order through them, but when asked about a specific beer or style, you'll either be pointed to one of the iPads near the wall of taps or given a look of confusion. At least the service is friendly, prompt, and courteous, and the staff does know plenty about the food.
Unlike the beer selection, there are no quirky rules about what you can and can't order off the menu. And it's not like they ask you to plate your own food — of course, they do that for you. However, the entrees leave a little to be desired. The 12-ounce bone-in pork chop ($18), or The Pig Deal, shows some promise, but it drowns in a puddle of sticky sweet sorghum glaze, making the dish reminiscent of a Jack Daniels pork chop at TGI Fridays. The fried boneless chicken breast was dry and bland. Even the red wine demi-glace didn't help much ($16).
Bay Street's pierogies ($7) are on par with frozen Mrs. T's, and the sour white wine mustard sauce doesn't do them justice. You'll be lucky if a side of stewed Brussels and cabbage comes with more than half a Brussels sprout (the rest were replaced by collard greens).
We had much better luck with the sandwiches and basic bar fare. The fried chicken sandwich was a vast improvement over the breast entree. It was tender, seasoned, and topped with a spicy cabbage jalapeño slaw and sriracha, and the house-made pretzel bun puts it over the top ($11).
Salty, sweet, and crisp with a touch of heat, the maple-jerk wings ($7/$12) were a home run, and the beer fried pickles ($6) were pretty darned good, too. It's these simple bites that stand out, and they pair well with one of the many sporting events shown on flat screens across the dining room.
The idea to latch on to the popular craft beer market by offering customers a way to enjoy those beverages in an atmosphere they never have before sounded promising, but the serve-yourself tap system turns out to be more confusing than anything else and the heavy macro beer promotion doesn't sit well with the craft beer community. So, let's forget about Biergarten's macro beer-inspired Super Bowl party that featured "super tubes" of Bud Light and pints of LandShark. We'll pretend we didn't see the MillerCoors logo-ed chairs out front. There's actually some decent craft beer flowing. Having options available is one thing, but mass marketing them is another.
But hear us out: Bay Street Biergarten is one helluva good-looking sports bar — and one that serves some decent bar fare. It may not be the ultimate craft beer-centric place we'd hoped it would be, but there's still a decent load of craft options. People love sports bars, and the place has been packed on weekends since opening, earning accolades like Best Downtown Bar and Best New Bar by City Paper readers. There's no question they're doing well right now, but as we asked about the froyo trend: how long will it last? Only time will tell. For now, can we get another pretzel?