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.[Krieger, 12/16/09]
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