German beer halls often get the kitschy treatment when translated to a US audience, filled with das boot steins and lederhosen. Restaurateur Omar Popal and his family (Lapis, Café Bonaparte) are going in the opposite direction with The Berliner—a grittier, modern take on a biergaten opening near the Georgetown waterfront this month.
“The beer halls opening in Berlin now are modern and industrial, sexy and badass,” says Popal, an Afghan-American with “half-Ghan” (half German, half Afghan) family. He’s visited them in Berlin and elsewhere for over three decades. “Everything I’ve been exposed to is from a locals’ eyes. It’s not all Hoffbrau and big steins.”
The brew bar replaces Popal’s French cafe, Malmaison. He says the family has been talking about doing a Berlin-style concept for years, and part of what spurred the change was finding the right chef: Mike O’Brien. The former Blue Duck Tavern butcher left DC to head up beer and/or sausage-making programs at spots like Mikkeler Bar and The Monk’s Kettle in San Francisco. He’ll take a similar from-scratch approach here, fashioning classics like spiced lamb merguez and a “true Berlin” bratwurst, according to Popal, plus a few rotating sausages such as a house-cured bacon brat.
The rest of the menu is inspired by the German capital’s street eats, including doner kebab and schnitzel sandwiches, pretzels with beer cheese, and meatless items like falafel and grain salads—a nod to the thriving vegan scene.
Like the food menu, the list of 24 drafts includes items you might expect—popular German beers like Gaffel Kolsh as well as a locally made hefeweizen—plus less common pours. O’Brien is working with specialty importer Shelton Brothers to get small-batch German beers, while Popal wants to introduce local Berlin flavor in drinks like colabier (Coke and beer, which, yes, is a thing).
The look will be different, too. Though not as garden-y as outdoor beer gardens, parts of the split-level bar will have an indoor/outdoor feel thanks to large, garage door-style openings onto the street (an upstairs area is designed to feel more intimate). Popal also plans to bring the outside in with touches like floral wallpaper—a near replica of the print Popal’s aunt has favored in her apartment in Hanover, Germany since the 1950s.
“It’s like our take on Lapis,” says Popal, referring to his family’s Afghan bistro in Adams Morgan. “You’re coming into my family’s home.”