Astoria in the borough of Queens is where you will find the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden, a Czech pub and social centre which first opened its doors in 1919. Today it offers one of the very few large spaces for al fresco drinking in the whole of New York, a fact reflected in extremely long queues to get in during the summer months.
“Bohemian Hall first opened well after the Bohemian Citizens Benevolent Society was established . The land it’s built on was donated by a farmer of I believe Czech descent. The society’s first intention was to build a school and a gathering place for Czech people.
“Their hope was to give Czech citizens who had migrated to the US a place they could educate their children, and also to help them to be good responsible American citizens and represent their culture in a positive way.”
How was the building funded?
“A lot of the funding came directly from the immigrants themselves. They built themselves, they didn’t hire people, and they donated any goods or materials needed to do the projects.”
Also I believe not long after this place was opened America introduced a ban on drinking, with prohibition.
“Yeah, I’m sure some of the earlier members thought it was kind of doomed, because just as the beer garden had reached completion prohibition came into being and it wasn’t legal to serve alcohol.”
Prohibition of course ended 75 years ago and many things have changed since then. Including the profile of visitors to the Bohemian Hall pub and its adjacent beer garden, both of which have been run since their inception by the Bohemian Citizens Benevolent Society. General manager John Argento says the clientele isn’t as Czech as it used to be.
“Especially in the summer time the percentage goes way down, because Astoria has been changing over the last five years.
“A lot of young, what we’d call yuppies, upwardly mobile people, have moved here because there are cheaper rents. There are a lot of students – it’s just a whole new population for Astoria, which was formerly some Czechs and a lot of Greeks.
“We’re finding that it’s young people with their first jobs, a lot of college guys just starting out, and this is a great neighbourhood.
“We’re also getting a lot of people because of the popularity of Bohemian Hall, they’ve found out about it, it’s like a gem, there’s nothing like it in New York City. We get people coming in from all over, from Manhattan, from Brooklyn, from all the boroughs, because there’s just nothing like it.
“Real estate is so expensive in Manhattan that in NYC something like the Bohemian Beer Garden just doesn’t make sense economically to exist anywhere else. But here it does, because it’s owned by the society.”
And I’m told that the beer garden is one of the few in the whole of New York state.
“There are a couple…it’s certainly the only Czech one. There’s probably a German one in New Jersey and another German one in Long Island, but as a Czech beer garden this is unique.”
Unfortunately I’m here [in late April] before it reopens after some renovation work. But what’s it like at its busiest?
“It’s absolutely insane, you have to get here early or you won’t get a table. And if you don’t get here earlier than that you may have to wait in line to get into the garden itself. People love it so much that they’ll wait two hours in line just to come in and get a cold pilsner.”
What about events? Do you have many Czech events that take place here, like concerts and so on?
“Yes, in fact we’re having this band Chodska Vlna…play live in the garden – they’re opening the garden on Sunday, next week.
“We also have the Czech-Slovak festival here. It runs for three days and it’s just thousands and thousands of people, with ethnic dances, we bring a Czech band in from Texas…we sell ethnic products in the booths. It introduces the yuppies to what Czech culture is.”
Do you think they have any understanding of Czech culture when they come here first?
“Not at first. A lot of people in America assume that a beer garden is German. We’re not German here…by the music that we play and the beers that we serve – we serve a lot of Czech beers…
“They come in not knowing it but they leave knowing the culture. We bring a lot of Czech students over that they meet in the summertime, they work as waiters, they work as busboys, and they interact with the customers.”
Another way visitors can get closer to Czech culture is by enjoying the Bohemian Hall’s traditional Czech cuisine. Lizanne Fluxom:
“We’re very proud of our svickova, we have dumplings, we have roast pork, tripe soup, we have many very delicious dishes from the Czech Republic.”
What about the wet stuff?
“Yes, we also have water (laughs). And some pivo, we have some beer available.”
Among your notable visitors has been Václav Havel himself.
“That’s correct. He was kind enough to dedicate a tree in our garden. If anybody visits they can see our tree – it has a beautiful plaque written in Czech right next to it, and we’re very proud of our tree.”
Under expansion plans, Havel’s Lime Tree may also find itself surrounded by happy beer drinkers in the winter months. So manager John Argento told me, when I asked him if earnings from the summer crowds could keep the business going all year long:
“Oh, absolutely. I mean the place is just crazy mobbed for six months out of the year. Our plan is to actually incorporate some kind of winter garden, which is why they brought me on, to expand the space in the garden so we could eventually go twelve months of the year, with a much bigger space.”
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