18 December 2009

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Rolf's"?

I finally made it to Rolf's, the happy-looking German restaurant on Third and 22nd. I hope the quirky place sticks around for a long time. I also hope it's taken over in the near future by someone who gives a damn.

Who Goes There? Rolf's

Who goes to Rolf's, the 41 year-old German curiosity on a nowhere corner of Gramercy Park? Almost not me, that's who. I strolled in one night last week at 7 PM, took in the sardine scene at the narrow bar, and was told by the unsmiling, bevested maitre d' of a reservation book full up until 10 PM. "You could eat at the bar," he suggested, not believing the words even as he spoke them. Unable to make any headway through the thicket of human flesh between me and a stool, I gave up and turned heel.

I returned the next week with a reservation. But minutes before the appointed time, my companion bailed out. I faced the same grim maitre d' as a solo. "We don't seat singles," he said. "It's too busy." He proffered the old eat-at-the-bar dodge. If I hadn't gotten pretty grim-faced myself, I wouldn't have been seated. (FYI, four empty booths yawned at me throughout my meal.)

My difficulty in penetrating Rolf's, which is hardly a headline-maker in the food world, had to do with timing. It's December. During the holidays, tiny Rolf's drapes itself with enough tinsel and garland to fill the Crystal Room of the late, lamented Tavern on the Green. The ceiling drips with fake evergreen boughs, silver, white and purple balls, plastic icicles, dolls, Santas, angels and ornaments. Christmastime tunnel vision seizes you the moment you step in, and the crowds love it. The restaurant is packed from Thanksgiving to January, with people coming from as far as Long Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and California, according to my waitress. In other words, tourists—many of whom saw Rolf's featured on the Travel channel.

The bar, meanwhile, seems to attract a steady swarm of working types: beer-drinking men in suits and ties and wine-drinking women in smart, neat, unfashionable ensembles. One man informed me that the patronage, once quite old, has skewed younger in recent years. They drink and chat gaily, seemingly unfazed by the fact that only centimeters separate them from their fellow man. I have never seen a barroom so crowded. It resembled a holiday-themed clown car. People at the door who spot a friend at the far end of the bar take a shortcut around the tables as the only possible way of joining their friend.

Couples, hypnotized by the baubles, routinely waltz in expecting to be seated, only to have their hopes immediately dashed. Rarely have I witnessed such crestfallen faces. They look like they've been informed there's no Santa Claus. I'd like to tell them that they're not missing much. The warmth of the place doesn't extend much beyond the festive decor. Aside from a couple cheerful waitresses, the staff goes about their duties sourly, as if doing penance. The place isn't hosted, it's managed. And, food-wise, my sausage plate was okay in theory (the wurst come from Queens' Karl Ehmer), but in reality overcooked and bland. The huge German beer was better, but it cost $10.

Perhaps Rolf's is too removed from it's founder to care. Rolf Hofsmann came from Munich but, according to my waitress, died at 49. His partner carried on until he died, and then another partner carried on, etc., etc. So at this point the place is like a German cousin several times removed. Still, it beats visiting Santa's workshop at Macy's.
—Brooks of Sheffield


Ed said...

I read this on Eater. This was the first "Who Goes There" review where, after reading it, it was still a mystery to me who goes there. But judging from the Eater comments, there are people who love this place. I've passed by it many times and have never been tempted to go in, it appears I've had good judgement in this area.

mingusal said...

Went there once several Octobers ago. Loved the over-the-top Octoberfest fall color decor, found the service cold and indifferent, hated the food. My German-American grandmother could cook rings around the dried-out old over-cooked stuff I got there. Now I just walk by and enjoy the seasonal decor through the windows.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Ed: Tourist go there, and local yuppies. Thought I made that fairly clear.

Anonymous said...


"local yuppies" is a lot of literary license on your part, as is the snarky "unfashionable" comment. You got all this from two trips? The food is in fact average, but the fact is that a lot of LOCALS have annual dinners there. They make plans and keep their reservations. Sorry you don't like it, but it's not going away, and it's a LOCAL tradition for many.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Anonymous: I've been a reporter for 20 years. I've long been adept in gathering a lot of information and impressions in a short period of time, and my experience has told me my instinct are usually on the money.

Actually, two visits is a surplus. If you've read the feature before, you'd know that all the "Who Goes There?" articles are based on a single meal—that, and a ton of research prior to visiting.

And, OF COURSE locals go there. Point to any restaurant in Kingdom Come and you can bet locals go there.

Finally, I'd wager my assessment of Rolf's is probably more accurate than yours, as your is arguably skewed by affection and the complacency that goes along with it.

Anonymous said...


The "I have lots of experience as a journalist so I must be right" is a terribly weak argument that relies on little more than the confidence of the user, rather than context. I am not a journalist, but I have been going to restaurants all my life. The bar is too crowded, the food is not great, and it's not a great place. I am very objective about that. I just felt that your post sounded like an overly snarky journalist who was annoyed to not get her way, that's all. It was the tone of it. Your response to Ed was fairly flippant as well. Trust me, I've been reading all my life, and therefore, I must be right. I know what I am doing. Sound familiar?

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Actually, it's a very strong argument. What do you think journalist do? How do you think they write their stories? They steep themselves in their subject so that, when they have to cover a story quickly, they can gather the necessary information in a short period of time and report with a fair amount of accuracy. That's the skill set of a journalist.

If you want me to post any more of your comments, your have to sign yourself something other than "Anonymous."

James said...

This will be my last post, I'll leave your site alone, but "Hey, I am a professional" is hardly reason enough to assume that someone's work is up to standard. I respect your right to think it's a strong argument, but I can think of lots of professional, long-standing people and operations who turned out to be worse than what we all thought. Bernie Madoff, Tiger Woods, Lehman, I could go on and on. Now, more than ever, the zeitgeist is to look at the details and read the fine print. That's why I felt that "I've been a journalist for 20 years" doesn't offer an explanation that I consider to be sufficient. My real issue, from the beginning, however, was the tone that seems to seep out of your writing in this post, as well as your comments. It strikes me as one of entitlement, and it's a little condescending, even if accurate, for example, towards Ed. It's your right to write however you see fit. I didn't intend to get mired in this nonsense, I won't post again, but just because you've done something for a long time, now, more than ever, does not mean people will assume that you are infallible.