Nestled in the heart of Corryville, just steps away from Highland Coffee House, lies an eatery rich with flavor and history that many students are sorely missing.
That place is Mecklenburg Gardens, hailed as “Zinzinnati’s Oldest Restaurant” with an opening that dates back to 1865, the same year that the American Civil War ended. This is no coincidence — formerly Mt. Auburn Gardens, the restaurant served as a gathering place for returning Union soldiers, who were part of the first all-German infantry, as they adjusted to life in Cincinnati.
“They were drinking here in the beer gardens and learning to become Americanized — they assimilated into our culture,” said John Harten, manager and co-owner of Mecklenburg Gardens. “They even taught people how to vote in this country.”
Connections to the Civil War are just one facet of Mecklenburg Gardens’ history; the restaurant also has ties to Cincy’s long line of breweries. According to Harten, the establishment was sold to Christian Moerlein (of Moerlein Lager) around 1887 — at the time, it was common for big breweries to own bars and saloons to sell their beer. Eventually, Moerlein sold the restaurant to his head waiter, Louis Mecklenburg, and Harten’s family assumed ownership in 1996.
History plays a major role at the restaurant today. Mecklenburg Gardens occupies a spot on the National Historic Registry and prides itself on supporting different German clubs and societies in Cincinnati. The restaurant’s back story also has a physical presence: old photos decorate the dining room, along with a frame containing Moerlein’s lease to Mecklenburg. The original bar is still in use, juxtaposed against sleek signage and modern draft beers.
In hopes to preserve a traditional German feel and to cater to a contemporary crowd, Harten ensures that Mecklenburg Gardens has a wide variety of drink offerings. Warsteiner, which Harten calls the “Bud Light of German beers,” is served alongside craft beers from Rhinegeist.
“We can have anywhere from 16 to 22 different beers on tap,” Harten said. “We list all of our beers on the ‘Untappd’ app so that people can know when we get new things coming in.”
As far as food goes, Mecklenburg Gardens keeps to its roots. Offerings include traditional staples, such as sauerkraut and three different schnitzels, which are Harten’s favorite. However, keeping with tradition does not mean that the restaurant is afraid to go big.
“We were on the Food Network and did this thing called Ginormous Foods,” Harten said. “We have this 38-inch sausage called the Terminator, which comes on a 32-inch bun that’s filled with sauerkraut and onions and peppers — altogether it’s five pounds. If a person gives us advance notice, they can try to eat it within an hour for free. The Food Network heard about this and featured it, and they also showed off our sauerbraten and cod sandwich.”
With so much hearty food and tasty beer in store, Mecklenburg Gardens has become the perfect venue for drinking and dining during sports seasons. Die Innenstadt, one of the main fan clubs of FC Cincinnati, hosts its pre-gaming events at Mecklenburg Gardens before every home game. Harten said when the soccer league first came to Nippert Stadium, there would be 50 to 75 people pregaming in the beer garden – that number has grown to almost 300 people per game, filling the beer garden, bar and beer hall.
“When FC moves downtown, we’ll lose some of that crowd, but we will be running a shuttle for those who want to continue with us,” Harten said. “We actually run a shuttle now, too, so that we can get people to all of the UC basketball and football games.”
Though athletic events can bring in students who are sports fans, Harten said that a youthful presence at the restaurant is lacking on a daily basis. Two years ago, Mecklenburg Gardens added Bearcat Card acceptance to encourage students to come in, but there has not been much change.
“We have had a lot of fraternities in here, but we would love to see more students overall,” he said.
For anyone who may be intimidated by a traditional menu and atmosphere, they should know that Mecklenburg Gardens is more of a warm, rustic environment than an uppity European establishment. The dining room is homey and welcoming, and the outdoor beer garden becomes gorgeous and lush in the spring and summertime, shaded by the greenery of overhanging grape vines.
Altogether, it’s more of a cultural experience than just a dining experience, which Harten recognizes.
“I know that there are people who come into Cincinnati who are not German, but who do want to see what a German beer garden is like without going to Germany,” Harten said. “My goal has been to provide an environment supportive of that German culture, and of all cultures, really.”