Pascal Leubecher, a bartender at Sophia's in the Charles Hotel, makes progressive, creative cocktails with fresh fruits and herbs. Photo for The Washington Post by Liza Weisstuch

Washington - It was a Thursday afternoon and the surfers were out in full force in the middle of Munich. If you had given me 10 or even 20 guesses which European city has a full-blown surf scene in the middle of an expansive central park, Munich would not have been on the list, but here they were in the English Garden, clad in wet suits, catching the waves that rolled through the Eisbach, a narrow channel of the Isar River, which flows from the Alps. Onlookers gawked and snapped photos.

This surreal scene was happening across a grassy plot from the Haus der Kunst, a contemporary art museum that was built in the 1930s to house Nazi propaganda art before it became an officers' club for the US Army. 

The walls in the room where the soldiers - and the Nazi officials before them - drank are covered in gold-leaf panels painted with maps depicting different wine- and spirit-making regions around the world. They were concealed with plywood to downplay the building's history, but were uncovered and restored in 2003.

Bar Goldene is located in Haus der Kunst, a contemporary art museum in the expansive English Garden that was built in the 1930s to house Nazi propaganda art. In warmer months, the grand patio bar is a popular urban oasis. Photo for The Washington Post by Liza Weisstuch


This is the historic backdrop for nighttime revellers, but on this sunny afternoon, hip young things, including a few with wet hair from the surf, were gathered on the expansive patio in the shadows of Doric columns. I settled among them for the outdoor bar's signature - a gin sour topped with gin-and-tonic foam and sprinkled with dehydrated Campari bits - and tried to balance myself at this fascinating intersection of then and now.

Munich has long been a victim of typecasting, mired in a reputation of oversize mugs of beer and bratwurst consumed by lederhosen-clad revellers during Oktoberfest. But in recent years, bartenders and chefs have worked to make that an antiquated image. Their efforts are paying off.

That's the sense I got at Wabi Sabi Shibui, an imaginative Japanese restaurant - all blond wood, crisp edges and high ceilings - that opened in April 2018. It's owned by Klaus St. Rainer, who also owns Goldene Bar. A bartender for several years at Schumann's, pretty much the city's only cocktail destination for years (more on that in a moment), he was insistent on bringing Munich into a new era.

I took a seat at the huge table that serves as a bar on the other side and sipped on a Me So Miso, an Eastern twist on an Old-Fashioned with Japanese whiskey and sake and sweetened with clarified miso syrup. The food plays on Japanese flavours. 

David Deck regularly holds down the fort at the navy-themed Pusser's New York Bar, which his father, a former U.S. Air Force reporter, opened in 1974. Photo for The Washington Post by Liza Weisstuch


The Ramonara is a ramen noodle variation on the spaghetti carbonara theme, and a potato salad dish comes with salmon caviar, shoyu egg and edamame. This being potato salad in Germany, however, I couldn't help but think it took cues from local cuisine, too.

But these days, with so many chefs on the move around the world, "local cuisine" can sometimes feel like something dynamic, a synthesis of an individual's personal experience. 

After a few days of speaking with bartenders and locals, it was clear that the modern scene has its roots in one place: Schumann's. The bar, which is situated on the historic tourist-dense Odeonsplatz, was opened in 1982 by Charles Schumann, who's something of a legend not only for the bar, which has scored top prizes in global bar awards, but also for his book "American Bar: The Artistry of Mixing Drinks," which he published in 1995, long before the cocktail renaissance.

Schumann cuts a striking figure as he darts about the restaurant, which has an Italian air about it (and not just because of the scores of Campari bottles lined up like a brigade of marching soldiers on a high bar shelf). With the appearance of a spruced-up Iggy Pop, the former model greets business executives in suits, women in teetering heels and other familiar regulars with cordial kisses and banter.

The bartenders, who wear crisp white shirts and ties, crank out cocktails - most of them classics. The drink menu has 58 pages and an index. Schumann is famously vocal about his disdain for oversize cocktail garnishes and other precious flourishes. He shows me a poster of an outtake from a 1940 bartending book. It reads, "The idea of calling a bartender a professor or mixologist is nonsense."

Cihan Anadologlu wouldn't go so far as to call himself a "mixologist," but his approach to drink-making differs vastly from that of his mentor.

Head bartender at Schumann's for 10 years, Cihan opened Circle in January 2016. The dramatic space is all mirrors and glamour. The bartender is set against a curtain backdrop. A frequent visitor to Japan, Cihan takes cues from Tokyo bar culture. Precision is a hallmark here. Newfangled infusions and grilled fruit play a role in the drinks, but nothing is inaccessible.

The Washington Post