It Didn’t Happen By Accident: Rolf’s, the Christmas Miracle
Rolf’s is known for its holiday cheer, but the German restaurant in Kips Bay hasn’t always been this festive
About 35 years ago, Evan Blum, owner of Demolition Depot, got a call from a guy named Ben House. Blum salvages architectural artifacts, everything from iron facades to crystal lamps, then sells the restored pieces. House, who owned a German restaurant in Kips Bay named Rolf’s, called Blum to help him with a redesign. “It was fading,” Blum said, “and he was fixated on transforming that.”
Today, Rolf’s is known for its bauble-lined ceiling and hours-long waits, but in the late seventies, it was decked out in military paraphernalia from World War I. Even then, Rolf’s was a festive spot that went over-the-top for Christmas, but the revamp in the eighties ushered in a new era. A restaurant that was once, in Blum’s words, “flat, boring, and stale” gradually transformed into a place that’s as synonymous with Christmas in New York as the Rockefeller Center tree.
More than 200,000 lights are strung around the space. You can barely see the ceiling because it’s covered with so much gold and green and red: antique ornaments, vintage dolls, pine needles, and fake icicles that dangle from up above. Although the Christmas cheer inside of Rolf’s has become an ideal photo backdrop, this restaurant’s commitment to kitsch feels like it isn’t motivated by social media. And yet, it’s social media that has fueled Rolf’s, making it more and more difficult for locals to snag a table.
If you’re willing to wait a few hours, and lucky enough to make it inside, chances are you’ll still need to fight for a spot at the bar. The bar itself — birch, from the Ozarks — was the first thing Blum sold House when he decided to redecorate. It started with the bar, then some lights, then stained glass windows.
“We cleaned it up and added some charm and character,” Blum said. As for the Christmas of it all, House and his business partner, Bob Maisano, kept adding throughout the years, little by little, to the point where Rolf’s is now more known for its decorations than anything else.
According to Maisano, the building that Rolf’s occupies, on the corner of 3rd Avenue and East 22nd Street, went up in 1840. At one point, it was a horse stable. Later on, during Prohibition, the downstairs area was a restaurant — if only to serve as a front for a speakeasy upstairs. The space, apparently, was destined for drinking, as it’s now filled with people sipping on apple schnapps and mulled wine.
A man named Rolf Hoffman, who was from Munich, opened the restaurant in 1968. He showcased Bavarian cuisine there through his mother’s own recipes, offering traditional dishes like weisswurst with sauerkraut and sauerbraten with red cabbage. When House and Maisano took over in 1981, they decided to keep the menu the same.
These days, people like to say that no one goes to Rolf’s for the food, but for Rolf’s regular Henry Wolf, that couldn’t be further from the truth. “I love eating spätzle, and other than Heidelberg’s, I think Rolf’s has the best spätzle in New York,” he said. “You go for the decor, but like, I know I’m getting the spätzle.”
For Oset Babür-Winter, Senior Drinks Editor at Food & Wine, it’s all about the schnitzel. “The schnitzel slaps,” she said, adding that, for her, “It’s less about the quality of the schnitzel and more about the nostalgia of the schnitzel.” And Rolf’s is the nostalgia king.
Just ask any regular.
Take Colu Henry, who has been going to Rolf’s since 1977, when she was still in the womb. “My mom and dad used to go after Lamaze classes,” she said. “I still go for special occasions, and I made sauerbraten for Thanksgiving this year as an ode to Rolf’s.”
Whitney Levin, who moved to Chicago but used to live right by Rolf’s on 22nd and 3rd, would call Ubers from the restaurant’s location geotag. “When I think of my time living in New York, Rolf’s is always in the backdrop,” she said.
For Bianca Kenworthy, Rolf’s was an annual holiday tradition. She and her roommate would make a night of it, going to the bar then coming back home to decorate their tree, which they named Rolf three years in a row.
Whether it’s an annual family tradition or a one-time late-night stop, Rolf’s has been making people happy for decades. And while it’s long been a destination for New Yorkers, the unintentional Instagramminess of its interior (#rolfs has been tagged nearly 12,000 times) has, in more recent years, drawn bigger crowds, made longer lines, and turned the bar into a Christmas-time institution.
Rolf's German Restaurant
281 3rd Ave (on 22nd St.)
New York, NY 10010
Hours: 12 p.m. - 10 p.m. (bar stays open later)