NEW YORK -- On warm weekends, customers might line up around the corner from the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden, touted as the last remaining outdoor beer garden in the city. When a seat or two open up at one of the long tables in the courtyard, a few more guests are ushered in.
On this autumn Saturday afternoon , the Pilsner Brass Band is playing up on the stage, giving the place an authentic hofbräuhaus feel. Patrons quaff Czechvars , Spatens , and other Czech and German beers, while chowing down on pierogi and sauerkraut, goulash and kielbasa.
"The hall was built in 1910 by Czech immigrants who were looking for a way to replicate their homeland and to hang out and be with friends," said Lizanne Fluxmon , event planner for the place where neighbors still hold weddings, and a mug of beer costs $5 -- a bargain in the Big Apple.
"The beer hall is like a symbol for Astoria. It's a neighborhood, built by immigrants, where prices are reasonable, people are friendly, and it feels like a village in Europe," Fluxmon said.
Bounded by 34th Avenue, 49th Street, the East River, and Bowery Bay, Astoria is a hip, multiethnic neighborhood in the shadow of the Triborough and Hell Gate bridges, and across the river from Manhattan's Upper East Side. But this urban district in western Queens, one of the five boroughs of New York City, has much more to offer than a 10-minute subway ride from Midtown. Home to 250,000 residents, Astoria and neighboring Long Island City are thriving urban communities with a small-town feel, where the sidewalks are walkable and there is plenty to walk to.
For visitors, Astoria is a less-crowded alternative to Manhattan, offering a cutting-edge food scene, outstanding views, and culture at a more affordable cost and slower pace. In addition to ethnic cafes and a lively nightclub scene, Astoria has several discount retail and food stores and open park land for walking, jogging, and taking in the vistas.
Linda Spitolla moved to Astoria 25 years ago from Manhattan because rents there were getting too high. "Now I'm near the river, I'm 10 minutes by train into Manhattan, it's quiet, and the people are friendly."
TV viewers of a certain age will recall that "All in the Family" was set in Astoria. Like Archie Bunker's homestead, many of the residences here are two- and three-story row houses with narrow driveways and tidy garden patches. Archie's house may have been make-believe, but other scenes in the show's opening credits are real : Stroll by Square Hardware at 3616 Ditmars Blvd., or the intersection at Broadway and 41st Street.
Once largely made up of Greek, Irish, Italian, Bohemian (now Czech), and Slovak immigrants, the neighborhood has continued to see a steady influx of new arrivals from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Latin America, and India. The diversity of culture is evident in the neighborhood's flavor and personality: the smell of grilling lamb from the kiosks on Ditmars Boulevard; the sounds of Greek, Spanish, and Arabic being spoken on the streets; the presence of ethnic newspapers like El Diario and The New York Carib News ; and the abundance of ethnic bakeries and markets. Omonia Cafe at 32-20 Broadway offers delicious Greek pastries prepared by the same folks who made the cake used in the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
If you are a film or television buff, plan to spend time at the Museum of the Moving Image at 35th Avenue and 36th Street. The site of Paramount's first East Coast motion picture and TV production facility, the museum houses more than 1,000 film and TV artifacts, including modern and vintage equipment. Stop for lunch at the Studio Cafe at Kaufman Astoria Studios on 36th Street, where videos, TV shows, and commercials are filmed, and you may glimpse an actor or director.
Another point of interest is the Steinway piano factory on Steinway Place off 19th Avenue, where pianos have been made since the 1870s.
For a quieter diversion, walk toward the Triborough Bridge and into the 65 acres of Astoria Park. Here, you find a public pool, tennis and basketball courts, a track, and benches to view the city. If you run, stop by the park at 9 a.m. on Saturdays and run with the Hellgate Road Runners .
Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Astoria in 1926 and sang at the opening of the Triborough Bridge in 1936. Still performing in his 80s, Tony Bennett helped found the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in 2001 in Long Island City to honor his late friend. Next year, the high school is moving to a new space on the grounds of Kaufman Astoria Studios .
Spitolla said a new group of urban professionals is moving into the area , driving up rents and real estate prices. "An average brownstone in Astoria goes for $1 million today," she said.
"Astoria loses none of the vitality of New York City, but is far enough removed from Midtown so the stress of city life doesn't beat you down," said Dan Walsh, a recent Fordham University graduate who moved here last summer. "We eat, drink, and live in the shadow of the skyscrapers, but we are able to step back and admire them from across the river."
Marie C. Franklin can be reached at email@example.com.