If you're a beer layman, the list of suds at Stadtgarten will be intimidating. It's meant to be. There are about a dozen on tap and almost twice that from bottles. A great majority of them have tongue-twisting titles in German. And rather than embarrassing yourself trying to pronounce any of it, you'll probably end up just pointing to the beer you want on the laminated menu.
That's what I did, and immediately after reading it aloud to confirm what I chose, the cashier took the appropriate glass for it and turned it upside-down onto a pressure washer built-in underneath the taps. I saw a geyser shoot up to rinse the glass. This, as I found out later, wasn't just for show. Glass rinsing is standard practice in Europe, and whether or not you believe it, its purpose is threefold. First, it's supposed to wash away any residual soap from the glass. Second, it cools the vessel. And third and most impressive of all, wetting the inside surface is purported to reduce friction when the beer is finally poured, thus improving head retention.
Did it actually make a difference in my beer? I'm not sure. But when an average pour costs $8 and the Almanac Emperor Norton, an IPA from Belgium, retails for $16, it's nice of them to pull out all the stops. Still, the most important thing Stadtgarten has done to enhance the enjoyment of my beer isn't the fancy glass rinsing or even the sausage sandwiches provided for sustenance; it's the beer-appropriate setting they've managed to landscape from what used to be a sad L-shaped strip mall next to downtown Fullerton's long-deserted Fox Theater. It has been transformed into an honest-to-goodness biergarten, which is to Germany as a pub is to Ireland.
It must be noted that Stadtgarten isn't the first restaurant to do a beer-and-sausage concept in OC, but it may be the first to do it in a courtyard filled with communal tables and bordered by hedges and shaded by trees. All of this contributes to the whole point of a biergarten. The Germans call it “Gemütlichkeit,” or “a space of warmth, friendliness and good cheer.” Come on a weekend evening, as I did, and you'll see the courtyard full of twentysomethings and college co-eds standing around laughing, talking and sipping from tall, frothy glasses beneath the summer night sky. Off to the side, the glass sliding doors of an indoor mess hall with long tables are pushed open to let in the breeze.
I'll admit that sitting outside, being surrounded by the pleasantness of the scene, made the first sip of the beer I cradled in my hands exhilarating. It was a bock beer to go with the bockwurst sandwich the menu recommended as a pairing. And it went down with hints of coffee and creamy chocolate notes—sweet, almost dessert-like. I wish I could've just continued to drink the beer by itself without taking a single bite of the sandwich, though. I wish I could say the beer tasted better with the sausage or vice versa. But the truth is every sip of beer I took after the bockwurst turned more and more bitter, which, in turn, dulled the flavor of the sandwich. This isn't to say the bockwurst wasn't good. It's far juicier and more flavorful than the chicken-and-apple sausage I also ordered. But I spent the night wondering what was it about the chemistry of that particular pairing that changed how my mouth perceived the beer.
Later, on a different trip, I settled on a lager that also happened to be one of the cheapest ones on tap: the Schonramer Gold, a Märzen out of Germany. And it went much better with the next three sausages I ate. Still, if it weren't for the toppings I chose to distinguish one from another, I wouldn't have been able to tell the bratwurst I ordered from the Nuernberger. Should I have told the staff to hold the toppings of the homemade sauerkraut, the mushy grilled onions or the leathery bacon? Should I have instead gone with the exotics such as the alligator as an andouille, the duck with bacon, or the rabbit with white wine? Should I have gone easier on the Sir Kensington's mustard that I squirted onto the “Mountain Man Sausage” (caribou, venison, elk and bison) that ended up tasting rather, um, domesticated?
I concluded that next time I visit, the only solid food I need as beer buffer will be the good, thick Belgian fries slicked with garlic butter. I've decided that everything else—the sausages, the pretzel that tasted as if it came direct from a movie-theater concession stand and the tough-as-burlap apple tart—are distractions from the only thing that matters here: the Gemütlichkeit. Skoal!
Stadtgarten, 500 N. Harbor Blvd., Ste. D, Fullerton, (714) 441-1077; stadtgartenla.com/location/fullerton. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-midnight. Dinner for two, $20-$40, food only. Beer and wine.