Gregor Lemke has not only been a passionate restaurateur for decades, he is also the chair of the association of Munich city centre restaurant and bar proprietors. We meet at his restaurant, Klosterwirt by Frauenkirche (cathedral) to talk about traditions, Munich’s favourite dishes and what makes a good host.
Munich has hundreds of pubs, taverns, restaurants and bars – especially in the city centre. One of them is Augustiner Klosterwirt situated directly next to the Frauenkirche. It’s a big establishment: there is seating for 430 people indoors and for another 150 outdoors, with nearly a hundred staff attending to guests from all over the world. The managing director and landlord is Gregor Lemke, who previously ran a place called Bratwurst Röslein in Nuremberg. Eight years ago he returned to his home town to take on his current job, and today he is also the chair and spokesperson of Münchner Innenstadtwirte e.V. – the association of Munich city centre restaurant proprietors. We meet Lemke for a Bavarian lunch at Klosterwirt – after all, it’s so much easier to chat about favourite dishes, favourite restaurants and the Oktoberfest while you’re tucking into cheese spaetzle and apple fritters.
Mr Lemke, what do you see as being typical of Bavarian-style tavern culture?
I think it’s that sense of people getting together – as would be typical in a village tavern: you have the priest sitting next to the teacher, the builder next to a family with the kids. People from all different walks of life meet, chat, and sit together at the regulars’ table – the Stammtisch – exchange views and engage in discussion. I got to experience this as a child, when my parents had a tavern in Garmisch for a few years – and it’s remained the epitome of tavern culture for me to this day!
"That place wasn’t really my thing at all at first – and now here we are today!"
Coming from a family of restaurateurs, was it inevitable that you would become one yourself?
That’s actually not far from the truth: my uncle used to work at Königshof on Stachus and offered to pay for me to attend hotel management school in Bad Reichenhall. It was tempting because the training course was expensive – and better than doing an apprenticeship at a bank. So I trained in hotel management there and have stuck with it ever since. From the Königshof – a very upscale restaurant with a Michelin star – I then went to Donisl: that was a wild time in the late 1980s, crowded, noisy and boozy, a complete contrast from working in haute cuisine. That place wasn’t really my thing at all at first – and now here we are today! I never really thought I’d become the landlord of a Bavarian-style tavern, but I always knew I wanted to work in the hospitality industry – that’s my job and I enjoy it! And there’s nothing better than enjoying what you do for a living.
Do you come into Klosterwirt every day? What’s your daily work routine like?
I’m here more often than I really want to be at the moment – last week I was here seven days, but that’s not really the norm. I usually have a lot of appointments out and about, especially due to my duties as chair of the association. Last night I was at the Town Hall, next week we have our big summer function.
Your line of business can be very demanding. What do you do to recuperate?
My wife once said that was what she admired most about me: no matter what happens at work, I’m always laid back when I get home. This is partly because of the mental training I do – I’m pretty good at winding down on my way home – but I also do yoga every morning. When I have time off, I like to go to the spa or spend time at our cottage in Greece
"If you’re sincere, empathetic and interested in other people, you’re automatically a good host."
What makes a good landlord in your view?
My philosophy is that you basically have to like people. You have to make guests feel you’re glad to have them – create an atmosphere with the premises, the staff and the interior that shows everyone is welcome. It has a lot to do with authenticity, too – and not just “putting on a face”. If you’re sincere, empathetic and interested in other people, you’re automatically a good host.
How do you actually manage to appeal to tourists and locals alike?
If the locals turn up, the tourists come of their own accord. At Klosterwirt we have up to 70 per cent locals as guests – people know each other, they say hi to each other, they talk in Bavarian dialect Take a look around: there’s a father over there sitting with this his son, behind us there’s a businessman with a mobile phone, and over there is the Stammtisch – that’s the regulars’ table where the same people come every day for a beer and a chat. Tourists are looking for authenticity – and that’s what they find here. As I see it, we're not talking about two different target groups here: if you have one, you automatically get the other.
What do the people of Munich order and what do the visitors prefer?
Asian guests like to order Haxn – knuckle of pork: the bigger the better. They then spend a lot of time taking photographs of it before they actually start eating! And the locals have their own preferences, often things you won’t often find on the menu any more: saures Lüngerl (veal cooked with vinegar and spices) or Beuscherl (lights) – these are things that are only eaten by people who are familiar with them! But what everyone appreciates is a good Schweinsbraten – roast pork.
"Asian guests like to order Haxn, the locals have saures Lüngerl or Beuscherl. But what everyone appreciates is a good roast pork."
You’ve been working in gastronomy for many decades. What has changed over time – or is the classic Bavarian tavern always the same anyway?
I wouldn’t say that “tavern culture” is entirely without its trends, but this kind of thing tends to be slow to develop. Mind you, I regard that as a positive: we don’t jump up on every bandwagon, and if we do make changes – like adding more vegetarian dishes – these are carefully incorporated in the existing menu. One thing that certainly stands out is that people are a little more conscious about what they eat and drink than they used to be, though the expectations of a place like this still tend to be quite traditional.
Trends indicate that people drink less bear and eat less meat than a few years ago. Will the classic Bavarian-type tavern soon be obsolete?
A well-run tavern never gathers dust as I see it: after all, the traditional and the modern aren’t mutually exclusive. If someone is looking for fusion cuisine, they’ll find it somewhere in Munich. But if you want good old roast pork like grandma used to make, you still come to a place like this. That’s why it’s always fashionable to keep up traditions.
"People are a little more conscious about what they eat and drink than they used to be, though the expectations of a place like this still tend to be quite traditional."
What are the no-go’s when at a Bavarian tavern?
Being unfriendly and snooty – those are no-go’s as far as I’m concerned. Hygiene and cleanliness are vital. And: what’s the service like, does the food offer good value for money. I get much less worked up about these things nowadays than I used to. One thing that’s absolutely taboo: a waiter or waitress putting their finger in a glass when they clear it away – I call it the “monkey grab”. A beer glass needs three rinses to remove the finger grease – otherwise the head of foam on the beer collapses almost instantly. If you look at the next table, you can actually read the glass: you can see exactly how much liquid has been removed from the glass at each sip – that shows it's really clean.
What are your favourite taverns? Where do you hang out when you’re not here?
If I’m not in the city centre, I like to go to Augustiner Keller. It’s sensational: you get such great quality there for the size of the place – a truly elemental Bavarian force in the world of gastronomy. Otherwise, I like to go to Lake Wörthsee – we live in Germering, so the Fünf-Seen-Land (Five Lakes Region) is not far away. You can go for a nice walk, drop in for a snack at Seehaus Raabe enjoy a beer at Augustiner at Steinebach and then relax in the sunbathing area with an ice cream or pop in the lake for a dip – simply marvellous! Something else I like to do is to rent a boat and go out for a bit of spin on Starnberger See (lake).
"To me, the Wiesn isn’t just a place, it’s really an attitude to life."
After 16 years in Nuremberg, you came back to Munich for the job at Klosterwirt. What is it you like about the city?
Munich has an open-minded, positive and tolerant feel about it – and its safe, too! It’s actually the city where one out of two Germans would like to live. Munich is really a feeling that comes from a deep-seated sense of self: it’s something that’s conveyed by the people who are from here – the real Münchner – and everyone who lives in the city for a couple of years tries to take on something of this distinctive sense of identity for themselves. It’s simply a fantastic place! I was very happy to come back – it was like coming home.
You’re also the spokesperson for Munich’s city centre restaurant proprietors. Why is an association of this kind necessary?
We’re really a kind of interest group, though the establishments we represent are extremely varied of course. There are coffee houses, Bavarian-style taverns and gourmet restaurants, too – from Brenner’s and Café Luitpold and even the Hofbräuhaus (beer hall) itself. The main requirement is that the restaurant is not part of a chain and has already demonstrated that it’s capable of holding its own in the city centre. We exchange information regularly – about current measures and news, as well as little things like new fixtures and fittings. If anyone has questions or concerns, we can raise them collectively with the authorities. The philosophy is: we’re stronger together. And we also organise events like the Wirtshaus-Wiesn – that’s an idea we came up with as a substitute for the Oktoberfest in 2020. It went down so well, we’ll be doing it again this year.
You could almost say that people who go to a Bavarian-style tavern are actually looking for that Oktoberfest feeling?
It’s certainly true that visitors’ expectations in Munich are closely linked to Bavarian-style tavern culture – that’s something we’ve managed to transport all over the world with the Oktoberfest. And it’s a feeling you can put across on a small scale at this type of restaurant, too. To me, the Wiesn isn’t just a place, it’s really an attitude to life – a certain way of spending time together, enjoying life and celebrating it, too. The fact that you have a fixed place and time for this event is the icing on the cake.
"The visitors’ expectations in Munich are closely linked to Bavarian-style tavern culture – And it’s a feeling you can put across on a small scale at this type of restaurant."
What would you say is the perfect day at Oktoberfest?
For me, the ideal day at the Wiesn starts in the afternoon when the weather is nice: you go out, buy some almonds and take a ride on the Krinoline with your grandmother. I think the Oide Wiesn is a great idea – where they’ve recreated the traditions of the original Oktoberfest. After that I go to the Augustiner tent, order duck on a spit or a fresh chicken and have a beer or two – then I can go home feeling great.
Do you actually wear traditional dress every day?
At home I wear a Dirndl (women's traditional Bavarian dress) (laughs). No, I like to dress up in traditional costume when I go to work or to official appointments: as I see it, it’s all about authenticity and – once again – guests’ expectations. At the end of the day, it’s also out of respect to visitors. But when I get home, I look forward to slipping into something more comfortable, too.
One last question: what do you think of the saying Wer nichts wird, wird Wirt – loosely translated: if all else fails, you can always become a pub landlord.
(smiles) I think anyone who has ever got a taste of my job knows that to run a place like this you need to have pretty much of an entrepreneurial mindset, too. Of course, anyone can open a pub or a restaurant – you don’t need a professional qualification to do that. But I've seen a lot of people go bankrupt in my life, too. So you do have to have some idea of what you're doing!