1953—There is no corner: Emil Ruoff, an intrepid German immigrant hears word of the pending construction of State Route 299, planned to intersect with Route 44-55 in Gardiner, abandons Emil’s Tavern down the road, builds the left half of the future Brauhaus (the dining room was an addition), and, with his wife’s assistance, sets up an ice cream and burger shoppe,The Sugarbowl.
Emil endeavors to create a high end steak house, but his business is within two miles of an established bar and state law forbids him to open his own for two years. The original menu of The Mountain Brauhaus, finally established in 1955, is now mounted on the dining room wall and boasts a $3.00 Charcoal Steak, a 20¢ Frankfurter, and Chicken A La King for $1.50. Printed beneath is, “Sauerbraten: 1.75.” It was among the cheapest dishes on the menu, and the only one to have survived the ages. Perhaps inevitably, Emil had the misfortune to hire German chefs—historically proven to be utterly incapable of cooking a good steak. The meat was either well done or burnt, but it turned out customers did not want steak. They wanted Sauerbraten. They wanted Schnitzel. They heard there were Germans, and they flocked. In perhaps the earliest of Gardiner’s democratic movements, the community demanded German food. And so it was written.
In 1963 Emil Ruoff retires. His brother and nephews take over, the youngest of whom eventually loses interest. The eldest remains, perhaps lured by a certain waitress, a beautiful waitress, and a fireball of a woman to this very day—Miss Margarete Hildebrandt—and perhaps driven by his German heritage, stubbornly insistent on continuing his family’s tradition of serving authentic German fare in an unfamiliar world, John Ruoff endures. In 1967, John and Margarete marry. They work hard. They bear children. They work harder. In 2009, their youngest children, Mark and Ilka, run the front of the house, while Kevin Casey, Ilka’s husband, takes care of the cooking.
These days, there is far more to the Brauhaus than Sauerbraten. While traditional German fare makes up the core of the menu, Chef Kevin’s daily specials focus on eclectic cuisine and seasonal produce—spice rubbed ostrich (melts in your mouth!) paired with locally grown vegetables to “the best vegetarian meal I’ve ever tasted!” according to one customer who couldn’t get enough of Kevin’s rosemary infused polenta. At the bar, you’ll find reasonably priced, carefully selected wines (look for Whitecliff Winery’s pinot noir or sip a variety of whiskey from Tuthilltown Spirits) and scrupulously crafted cocktails (the daiquiris are made with local strawberries from Meadow View Farms and the mint for mojitos is straight from the garden). Perhaps it goes without saying that German beers abound, but with a solid selection of Weiss beers among an authentic variety of delectable brews, Oktoberfest is a year round affair. The cider is local and each egg that enters the kitchen is free range. Apples are purchased at either Jenkins-Luekens or Dressel Farms, and veggies travel as little as three miles to the table, from a plethora of local farms. Brook Farm, along with Phillies Bridge Farm, provide everything from lettuce and heirloom tomatoes to watermelon and acorn squash. Naturally, the menu reflects the seasons.
The Mountain Brauhaus has certainly come a long way, and its transition into an environmentally conscious, locally driven restaurant only further confirms Gardiner’s reputation as a cutting edge community. And, on Thursday afternoons, when I pick up my organic produce at Taliaferro Farms on Plains Road, I am proud to know that my favorite restaurant does the same.