Jacob Wirth: Over 150 Years of Old-World German Eats

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Posted February 7, 2014 by Cheryl Fenton in Eat & Drink
Jacob Wirth

It’s everywhere I turn. I go to Bliss at the W for a massage, I walk by Jacob Wirth. I visit the theater for Blue Man Group, I walk by Jacob Wirth. I come out of Chinatown after dimsum, I walk by Jacob Wirth. After years of strolling past, this time I stepped into this Boston institution. I wanted to know why Boston magazine has given it 13 Best of Boston awards. And let’s face it, sometimes you need pretzels and beer.

Who was Jacob Wirth? If there’s one thing you can say about him, he sure knew his alcohol, which is a good thing since he opened up a traditional German beer hall. Leaving behind a family of wine growers and life in southwestern Germany near the famous Anheuser family, Jacob arrived in Boston in 1868 and set up business on Eliot Street. A decade later, he moved across the street to today’s landmark site. He became the first distributor of Anheuser Busch products and imported Rhine wine. Jacob also bottled and brewed his own beer and was one of the founders of Narragansett Beer. Upon his death in 1892, his son Jacob Jr., fought a few battles to keep his dad’s place alive. Two world wars didn’t help German popularity, and prohibition meant that no one could drink legally. The menu still thrived, and even continued to serve some of the same dishes from its first week of operation. Since 1975, the Fitzgerald family has been running the show.

Juicy brat at Jacob Wirth

Juicy brat served at Jacob Wirth. Photo Credit: Cheryl Fenton.

A Proud Past: When I heard the restaurant had the potential for a ghost, I was immediately drawn. Unfortunately, no beers went sailing across the bar (other than those we ordered), and I’m sure the chilly breeze came from the front door. But this place apparently boasts 50 years worth of ghost stories, with the quirky and playful undead acting out occasionally. Haunting the restaurant in real life is a list of pretty cool celebs—Liza Minnelli, Al Pacino, Peter Falk, Conan O’Brien, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ben Affleck, and Cameron Diaz. It was also the subject of a piece by Jack Kerouac, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones shot a music video there.

Today’s Visit: Coming in from the blinding white snow, the restaurant was a cozy, dark cave. Once our eyes adjusted, the imposing mahogany bar, wooden chairs, and dark wood paneling warmed us up straight away. As I sat down and took in the surroundings, I suddenly realized I was knee-deep in an auditory scrapbook of ’80s concert ticket stubs. They were playing Boston, Billy Joel, Phil Collins, and Elton John. There was even “Twist and Shout” by The Beatles. Sure, that song’s circa 1963, but it’s linked to the parade scene in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. Bottom line: Their music is a tad dated, but fun nonetheless. I’m not sure how German it is, though. I guess Rammstein and Tokio Hotel don’t make good dining ditties. Fair enough.

This place is an authentic German beer hall. There are hundreds of tap handles lining every wall. At the bar, they proudly serve 46 constantly rotating taps, with an emphasis on traditional German-style brews, from pilsners to bocks, ales to märzen. We decided to start off with a Crabbie’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer. British, yes. But who can turn down ginger beer that contains alcohol? Not this gal.

Bring on the grub. We started off with Potato Pancakes. They were drizzled with cinnamon crème freche and topped with fire roasted apples. I was happy the pancakes weren’t greasy, and the warm spiced apples were tasty. I would have welcomed the tang that sour cream brings instead of the crème freche, which really wasn’t all that cinnamon-y.

Jacob Wirth's famous Ale Cheese Dip

Jacob Wirth’s famous Ale Cheese Dip. Photo Credit: Cheryl Fenton

Now comes the beer cheese. I can honestly say I would eat their Ale Cheese Dip (warm ale and vidalia dip) on everything short of scrambled eggs. Oh wait, eggs might pair nicely with it, actually. The dip was flavorful with a traditional ale taste and pieces of sweet onion blending nicely. It was served with Toasted Pretzel Bites for dipping, which were crusty on the outside and soft on the inside. There was a ton of dip, so we were able to carry it through our second course. Praise the heavens, I got to put this on grilled meat.

We ordered Jake’s Nibbler, a sampling of grilled knackwurst and bratwurst served over sauerkraut, red cabbage, and German potato salad. The potato salad had a warm vinegar taste and huge chunks of potato, and the ground beef and pork sausages were mild with that familiar “snap” when you bite into them.

Sauerbraten was next. This braised beef round was served over handmade dill spaetzle and topped with gingersnap gravy and red cabbage. They coin the phrase “melt in your mouth” on the menu, but I’m not so sure. It was a little dry, but I didn’t mind—the ale cheese dip came to the rescue. The spaetzles were tiny, creamy dumplings that I absolutely loved, but they could have used more dill.

Slung on both main dishes was a warm red cabbage slaw that showed a sweet side of tangy. Once again, an excellent side dish.

We had zero room for dessert (although we heard the warm apple strudel is good for sharing), so we ventured back out into the snow.

The question is, is it “Wirth” it. Maybe—if you want to savor a piece of Boston’s past and have some pretty good German eats.

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