Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Old New York: Christmas is Served, at Rolf's German Restaurant

By Mitch Broder

The angels appeared to be tooting, but there was no way I could have heard them, what with all those other people chattering away on our branch.

Still, I couldn’t help liking my afternoon in the tree, even if I couldn’t help expecting an icicle to fall and puncture my head.

Anyone who will listen knows that I get sick of the holiday season around the time that the first bag of candy corn arrives at Duane Reade. I blame this on years of working at newspapers where every story written after Labor Day began: “Christmas came early for...”

I used to look forward to going to, say, Rockefeller Center. Now I almost look forward to not going to it. But Bob Maisano said his place is different. He said I must come see it. And he was right. Christmas came early for me, at Rolf’s German Restaurant.

Rolf’s is not a restaurant with a Christmas tree. Rolf’s is a Christmas tree with a restaurant. It is a place packed with ornaments, lights, fake pine, fake ice, and fake snow, such that you don’t feel like you’re around a tree; you feel like one’s around you.

The dominant feature are the ball ornaments, in clusters of red and gold. Also the icicle ornaments, aiming squarely at your head. Also the tiny lights, of which Bob says there are 85,000. Every feature is dominant. Everything glistens or glitters or glows.

Walk around, if you can, and you’ll pick out the dolls and the sleighs and the tooting and fiddling angels, and maybe the three Santas swigging Merlot. And none of it’s junk. That is, none of it’s cheap. Bob says that the thousands of pieces are mostly nineteenth-century German antiques.

Last year, I chatted with Bob on a sultry summer’s day, when the crowd at Rolf’s, besides me, consisted of Bob. When it’s hot, people withdraw from jaeger schnitzel and smoked bratwurst. That’s why Rolf’s needed Christmas. That’s why Christmas there lasts for three months.

It wasn’t like that in 1968, when Rolf Hoffman opened the place. Back then, the patrons were satisfied with glowering waitresses in dirndls. It was Ben House who decided to fortify the holiday décor when he and Bob took over, after Rolf died in 1981.

Ben started off cheap. Bob says his taste ran to dollar-store silver garlands and animated polar bears swigging martinis. “You wouldn’t know if it was a restaurant or a store that sold Christmas decorations,” Bob says. “He loved Christmas decorations. … It seemed like the business was secondary to that.”

Ben died in 1996, and Christmas fell to Bob. He bypassed the dollar stores in favor of New England antique barns. He added stuff each year, and his tree became a destination. “If we didn’t have this Christmas here,” he says, “we wouldn’t have this business here.”

Rolf’s perked me up, at least until I hear “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” And perking people up, Bob says, justifies the six weeks of installation.

“Maybe they had a bad time somewhere. Maybe they had a bad day at work. And at least they walked in here and had a moment of happiness.”

Find happiness at Rolf’s German Restaurant, at 281 Third Avenue, between 22nd and 23rd streets, in New York City.


  1. That's a whole lotta bling for one room! Where do they store all that stuff when the season is over?!

  2. a different AnonymousJanuary 11, 2013 at 5:31 PM

    I seem to recall, dimly, a hole-in-the-wall bar in generally the Times Square area (somewhere West 40's, without being deepest Hell's Kitchen) in generally the early 70's era, as a "theme bar" called the Christmas Tree, or something like it. It was not nearly so well or so heavily decorated, however, and it really was more the blinking lights (so common in bars), to the nth degree, with Santa pictures, candy canes and things of that nature. I'm going back 40 years, of course, and there's always the vaguest of chances the old memory is playing a joke on me. But I'd take my oath there was such a place. The conceit, of course was "Every Day Ought To Be Christmas!"

  3. a different AnonymousApril 9, 2013 at 7:46 PM

    Lo these many months later, I come to find out that Jimmy's Corner has supposedly been there only since the mid-70's, where you would have thought it had been around since there really was a wall on Wall Street, that's how "legendary" it is. I had occasion to be in Times Square recently, to go to the IRS on W.44th st, and in walking to the 7th Av subway when I was done, I chanced to look inside the window of Jimmy's Corner, a place I've never been to (I'm rarely if ever in Times Square-- I'm not a theatergoer), and lo and behold, it had many of the kinds of Christmas lights I was talking about hanging up there as I had described in the place I was dimly recollecting; I'm actually wondering if Jimmy's Corner is the successor in that space, or did the owner change the name and theme and is it the place I was describing-- I wonder?

  4. These photos are amazing..and rival the best in the business...if ya know what I mean!