By Sabina Mollot
Rolf’s, a German/Bavarian restaurant in Gramercy, has been known for years for its stunning display of antique dolls complemented with rows and rows of Christmas ornaments and lights strewn throughout the space during the holiday season.
But few know the history behind the tradition, which began 35 years ago and has since made the venue world-famous.
It was in 1981 when the original owner of the restaurant, Rolf Hoffman, died due to lung cancer at the age of 49.
Robert Maisano, who now owns the place, knew Hoffman and recalled how he very much wanted to keep the place a German restaurant, serving up heaping plates of schnitzel, sausages and potato pancakes.
Maisano hasn’t strayed from this mission, though the emphasis on transforming Rolf’s into a winter wonderland each year is his own.
“The feeling of it all is a warm, cozy, old-fashioned Christmas,” said Maisano, a Stuyvesant Town resident. “When people think about what Christmas is about, reminiscing, reflection, the feeling of days gone by, it’s the end of the year.
“We keep doing it and every year it gets better. We keep adjusting it.” At first, he said, the display was very minimal, but that didn’t last long. “I said it should be much more abundant,” Maisano said, “like when you wake up on Christmas morning. It should be over the top.”
These days, there are around 150 dolls in the seasonal display, most of them antique ones designed by German artist Heinrich Handwerck in the late 1800s.
“You can tell by the faces of the dolls; they have a very particular face,” said Maisano, who’s a collector himself, and purchased many of the dolls from barn sales in New England as well as from dealers online.
One Handwerck doll he bought recently came from a shop in Vermont, where the owner said he’d acquired it from a 90-year-old woman. She’d had it since she was a little girl.
“She wanted to pass it on to another little girl to enjoy,” said Maisano, who admitted he didn’t share what he was purchasing it for. But, he added, “I’ll bet it would make that old lady smile if she knew it would be in a place like this.”
A few other dolls added to the display recently were newer, made in the 1950s in Europe, where the restaurant’s chef purchased them.
While the dolls, in particular the Handwercks, are expensive (most on eBay go for hundreds of dollars), Maisano said he’s not worried about any of them going missing. They’re all tied down securely with wire with the older, more expensive ones being placed closer to the ceiling, all out of reach of customers.
As for the customers, while being interviewed, Maisano was surrounded by full tables (the restaurant seats a total of 70 people) and a bar that was two people deep. The time was 1:30 p.m. on a Monday, typically a slow day for restaurants.
“We’re not really a lunch place,” said Maisano, explaining that the restaurant does get a lot of people in for lunch when they’re unable to get reservations for dinner. With the holiday display being a huge draw, the reservation requests for the winter season began in October.
“Call in the morning or you’ll get a busy signal,” Maisano warned. With some would-be diners not understanding why they’re being declined, Maisano often has to explain the size of the place and tries to talk them into coming for lunch instead or coming for dinner after the New Year.
Last Sunday was another busy day, with customers lining up halfway down the block before Rolf’s noontime opening. Maisano said one woman on line at around 10:30 a.m. told him she and her companions were taking turns keeping warm by going into the nearby CVS so the other person could keep their place in line.
“That’s the best compliment I’ve gotten so far,” Maisano said. There are regulars, he added, who make it a point to get reservations every year during the holiday season. But he particularly enjoys seeing people walk in for the first time and attempt to take in all the decorations at once. For Christmas Eve, reservation requests have come from as far as Australia, Sweden, France, London and Germany. “Most Christmases, you won’t hear any English,” Maisano said.
Along with the dolls, the display also includes 150,000 lights, many of them made from Egyptian crystal. “It gets hot in here,” said Maisano. “I just opened the door.” There are also countless ornaments, some resembling glass beads on strings, while others are shaped like icicles. “Each ball is put in separately,” Maisano told a woman who he noticed eyeing some of the ball ornaments hanging from the ceiling above the bar.
The display stays up each year at least until March, sometimes April or May if the weather is still cold enough to get away with maintaining a winter feel inside. “So many people ask me to keep them up,” Maisano said.
The restaurant first opened in 1968, though the building at the southeast corner of 22nd Street and Third Avenue always had a history of housing some sort of bar. It’s also, in a third floor apartment, where Groucho Marx had his first vaudeville audition, according to Maisano, who hosted a book launch event on the subject. “Obviously,” Maisano said of Marx, “he got the job.”