This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.
The name of this 37-year-old German chow hall may cause the stranger to pause before attempting the treacherous pronunciation, but it rolls like browned butter off the tongues of the aging German and Polish-Americans of Glendale and Ridgewood, Queens, who call this dark-timbered, antler-strewn restaurant their second home. Middled-aged and elderly regulars lumber and totter happily through the front doors. They find the patience needed for the seemingly endless wait to be acknowledged by the busy waitresses and shown a booth in the main dining room's tight, quarter-circle of coziness. They then settle down for a feed that could last anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours.
Most of the patrons look more like well-padded Midwesterners than New Yorkers. The women are largely blonde. The men have a woodsy, lumberjack-like look. Moustaches are plentiful, canes are common, and pendulous bellies abound. A septuagenarian comes in wearing a thick blue and white sweater with reindeer on it. In the corner booth, a ring of zesty old ladies are having a boisterous meal out. The walker belonging to one of them waits for her by the bar, and the waitress brings it over when its time to go. All uncomplainingly make the evidently arduous journey up and down the stairs to the bathroom.
One can't blame any of these happy grazers for feeling laden or sluggish. Zum Stammtisch fully commits itself to German cuisine at its fullest. You can not eat light here. You just can't. The meal doesn't begin with bread; it begins with a small loaf of bread, a knife thrust in its center. There's herring, there's goulash, there's wurst. The one listed salad is made up of nine components, including potatoes. Every fish come with sides of home fries. Entrees, like the popular, mushroom-smothered, veal Jägerschnitzel, are tripled-sized, almost ensuring a several-pound doggie bag. (It is assumed you will want to take the leftovers with you; when I hesitated, my waitress regarded me with a doubtful expression until I knuckled under and changed my mind.)
All these things are dangerously delicious, by the way. Beer (in glass, big glass, or glass boot) is the natural accompaniment. Hacker Pschorr, in several expressions, is proudly served—and advertised; the ribbons bearing the beer's blue and white colors, lit from within by white Christmas lights, are gayly draped from the ceiling like New Year's Eve decorations. They draw your eyes to the cute kitsch that line the walls: steins and tapestries, a poster for the upcoming 81st Edelweiss Ball, a the large moose head that wears a tiny Tyrolean hat.
Zum Stammtisch was founded in 1972 by John Lerner, a German immigrant. It's now run by his sons, Hans and Werner. The day I ate, the other dining room had been let out to a funeral party. As there is a funeral parlor across the street, I'm guessing this happens often. It was a jolly wake. Lots of laughter. There's a long red banquette which lines one end of the bar that divides the two dining rooms—more invited, winter's-night snugness. Hung mid-bar is a framed list of ten items, all written in German. I ask the bartender, a tall, goateed man wrapped in several yards of white shirt, what the sign is. "It's the rules of the bar," he says. What are they? "I don't know. I don't speak German."
—Brooks of Sheffield