It’s a common lament each year — starting around October, people love to complain that the Christmas season continues to creep further and further into the fall. But for some, that creep is a welcome one. If that’s you, I know a place.
At 3rd Avenue and 22nd Street in Manhattan, you can get your Christmas fill for around six months of the year — at least if you wander into the narrow German restaurant on the corner. You might almost miss it if you walk by during daylight hours. At night, it’s hard to miss. In this rather unsexy portion of Manhattan, Rolf’s has been a New York institution since 1968. It’s one of the last few real German restaurants in Manhattan outside of the newly opening millennial beer halls — and starting in September each year and lasting through April, it’s a marvel of Christmas décor, with hundreds of thousands of lights strung, and garlands, decorations and other things you might find in your elderly aunt’s home meticulously and maximalistically draped throughout the restaurant.
Upon entering, you’re instantly greeted with a sensory overload and the immediate need to bring tidings of comfort and joy. All the tidings and joy you could ever want, in fact. Weird remixes and covers of Christmas songs play over the speakers. Did you know someone did a techno remix version of “Joy to the World?”
The charm and appeal of Rolf’s should be immediately clear even if you’re not the Christmas type. In a city that seems to be increasingly taken over by a mix of direct-to-consumer storefront brands and restaurants and chains that feel soulless, Rolf’s is a breath of fresh air — even if that air is a bit musty. The proliferation of “cute” shops and cupcake stands and pour-over coffee spots and overpriced make-your-own-salad bars makes you actually happy to be back in the universally reviled Penn Station, where at least you can still buy cans of beer for your train ride. Rolf’s is a little like that. It’s a throwback to a New York era when things were gritty and maybe a little unsafe, and when people drove their own cars to get around the island. Though it’s become a mecca for Instagrammers and TikTokkers, Rolf’s can be forgiven, as they’ve been doing this since the best way to reach someone was by payphone.
It’s early November, the calm before the storm, when I sidle up to the bar. The restaurant is nearly empty aside from a few tourists down the other end and some retirees in the booths, getting their fill of the decorations before it becomes too mobbed for them to enjoy.
On this day, the staff were girding themselves for the upcoming festivities and enjoying the lull. But good luck walking in like I did during the holiday season. The bartender tells me the crowds will start picking up right before Thanksgiving, at which point you can expect a one- to two-hour wait for a table at any point of the night.
While the standard German beers and wines seem are available, I’m immediately drawn to the lovely assortment of Christmas drinks on offer, from mulled wine to warmed (and spiked) apple cider. I decide to bring on the Christmas cheer early with a vanilla eggnog that’s been healthily infused with bourbon and comes adorned with a stick of cinnamon. It’s a fantastic treat.
The appeal of Rolf’s of course isn’t necessarily the food, though it’s adequate if it’s what you’re looking for. The menu features your standard German fare, if Germans primarily ate a steady diet of sausages and schnitzel and spätzle (and French onion soup?). I order the smoked bratwurst alongside some spätzle and sauerkraut. I could try describing it to you, but have you ever had smoked bratwurst and sauerkraut? Well, that’s what it tasted like.
There are a few menu items for the health-conscious, like steamed mussels or rainbow trout, but why bother? When you slide yourself into a booth at a place like Rolf’s, most people’s intention is to eat and then find the closest place to take a nap.
Of course, those who enter Rolf’s, especially around the holidays, probably don’t have any intention of coming for the food. For those six weeks, the restaurant is mobbed with tourists and locals alike, with a healthy smattering of influencers hoping to snag a great shot for the ’gram. In fact, on any given night during that roughly six-week span, most people who come in probably aren’t eating — the bar area is packed four rows deep with people clamoring for a beer and positioning themselves for the perfect selfie.
The appeal of Christmas year-round, or nearly year-round, is an impulse that seems to be strong among the Germans. One of the more famous year-round Christmas shops is Bronner’s in Frankenmuth, Michigan, a bastion of German immigrants in the Midwest. Billing itself as the world’s largest Christmas store, somehow it’s managed to make a 365-days-a-year go of it with an over seven-acre superstore. Then there’s the Christmas Haus in Pennsylvania and the Christmas Sleigh in Virginia, both German-themed superstores that take Christmas to another level. When Christmas does actually come around, the Christkindlmarkts that spring up like weeds are hard to ignore.
Back at Rolf’s, a young British couple, tourists, come in off the street for a drink. Doubtless they’ve discovered the restaurant on Instagram and want to see for themselves. Another older couple, also clearly tourists, further down the way are talking up the bartender. I hear snippets of their conversation, that New York isn’t what it used to be (though I also hear the word “Pizzagate” being thrown around). Those seeking an unchanging world in the heart of Manhattan could do worse than Rolf’s winter wonderland.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2023 World edition.