By Hannah McCartney for CityBeat
Don't call it a restaurant.
Cincinnati riverfront's new Moerlein Lager House is not just a restaurant — this becomes brazenly clear as soon as you step into the 15,000-square-foot (without even including the underground service level) beer mecca. This includes three kitchens, two bars, a concession stand, an underground lab and wheat shredder, a hops garden and an ornate microbrewery headed by seasoned brewmaster Richard Dubé. And it's just the beginning.
It's not overstepping to say that the Moerlein Lager House, Christian Moerlein Brewing Company President and CEO Greg Hardman's $10 million brainchild, is part of both Cincinnati's brewing history and urban rejuvenation in the making.
Sure, for beer zealots, experiencing a trip to the Moerlein Lager House is nothing short of entrancing, but its intent is far greater. The Lager House is meant to serve as one of the main organs pumping life into Cincinnati's riverfront; Hardman has serious visions about the revitalization of the city's urban core, and he's chosen beer as the conduit. It's a wise choice in a city full of brew-fanatics, and Hardman knows it — perhaps that's why the house accommodates 1,400 visitors through indoor and outdoor seating.
The location couldn't be better. Moerlein Lager House lies right on the corner of Main Street and Mehring Way. Hardman points out one of the windows toward Main Street, showing that one can see all the way up Main Street into Over-the-Rhine's historic brewery district.
"That's the same path beer used to travel on wagons down to the riverfront to be exported," he says with a hint of nostalgia as he traces his finger down Main Street through the glass.
The location is also smack dab in the middle of the burgeoning Smale Riverfront Park, the 45-acre stretch of waterside green expected to serve as Cincinnati's "front door." Aside from a second-story deck that provides an enchanting, unobstructed view of the riverfront, the lager house — rumored to be one of the largest brewpubs in the world — is expected to be a hub for everything Cincinnati.
"This park system is a wonderful necklace of (Cincinnati) beauty and we're adding a main diamond with the addition of the Lager House," says Willie Carden, Jr., Cincinnati Parks Director.
"It's time to make Cincinnati a beacon of the Midwest … (Smale and the lager house) will be where everything starts and ends."
The idea for a goliath brewing operation and downtown hotspot has been distilling in Hardman's head for more than 10 years, ever since the Hofbräuhaus, modeled after the historic beer hall in Cincinnati's sister city, Munich, went to Newport, Ky., instead of Cincinnati.
"People were really upset about it, but I saw it as a good thing. I thought, ‘How about we celebrate Cincinnati's brewing heritage and experience instead?' " Hardman says.
And there's quite a bit to celebrate; that's clearly evidenced by the mural on the wall near the lager house's foyer. Jim Effler, a local artist also responsible for the design of Moerlein's bottle labels, has crafted a soft depiction of Cincinnati's legendary beer barons across history, accentuated by an almost dream-like pastel background of Cincinnati's riverfront landscape.
The Lager House menu transcends typical beirgarten fare; find classics like pretzels and beer cheese, a spaetzle-accentuated pork belly entrée, onions rings and a whole slew of meals cooked, roasted or marinated in beer. Other dishes may come as a surprise: Fish tacos with cilantro aioli, saffron-accented paella, crab cakes with tomato chutney and spinach risotto signify executive chef Carl Chambers' commitment to providing modern American fare to match the fresh, sleek interior with just a hint of old-timey influence.
Of course, it's only proper the menu would span such a vast range of palates; that's been designed to match the giant beer selection. The house holds a total of 90 taps, including eight consistent taps of strictly Moerlein selections and up to 20 guest taps. Altogether, Hardman has created something of a beer museum — drinkers can choose from up to 200 styles of beer from around the world.
Just like the fresh batches of beer crafted in the brewery at the front of the restaurant, the lager house's design has been executed with great care. The second floor, Hardman says, is designed for parties looking for a more intimate, quiet dining experience, while the first floor is garnished with TVs and modest furniture for a more casual time. He points to the Stammtisch table on the first floor, which provides four taps of free-flowing beer.
"I'll probably be sitting there most of the time," he chuckles.
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