Change is good, we tell ourselves. Change is healthy and necessary. And it’s not nice or fair to blame the Millennial generation every time a product we’ve relied on for years is discontinued, or a favorite local shop or eatery goes under, or its owners decide to retire. And yet, a little piece of us dies each time that happens. So there’s something tonic in remembering and celebrating the long-running businesses that show no sign of slowing down or going away, but rather are being discovered by new generations and visitors with the same enthusiasm already shared by old-timers.
In our neck of the woods, an obvious example is the Mountain Brauhaus: the German restaurant at the western terminus of Route 299 that sturdily weathered the long years when German cuisine was considered too heavy and passé, and that now serves as a beacon for the current revival of interest in the culinary traditions of Bavaria. Several new restaurants serving similar fare have opened in the mid-Hudson in recent years, and done quite well; but the number of cars packing the parking lot up at the Brauhaus on weekends never seems to diminish.
In fact, the Ruoff family, who have run the restaurant since its founding by great-uncle Emil in 1955, are planning to expand their parking capacity within the next two years. They recently purchased the lot across the street, on the northeast corner of the intersection of Routes 44/55 and 299, from the Open Space Institute (OSI), which had acquired the property to protect the “gateway to the Gunks” from unsightly development.
It says a lot about the Ruoffs’ commitment to responsible stewardship that OSI felt comfortable passing off this vulnerable piece of property to a commercial enterprise. As presented to the Gardiner Planning Board last month, the plan is to use the lot for overflow parking for restaurant patrons and employees, with half a dozen spaces set aside for short-term visitors to check out a tourism information kiosk that OSI will erect there. The lot will not be paved except at the road entrances, and it will be landscaped.
This move is but one in a long series of incremental improvements to the Brauhaus over the last several years that have been so subtle that many longtime patrons think of the place as never having been renovated. Though the “Alpine” interior wood paneling maintains a corny-but-comforting sense of continuity, in many other ways the restaurant has changed with the times. Those who recall the cramped restrooms of years past can now luxuriate in the updated ones made possible by the extension of a hallway on the eastern end of the building. Old windows were replaced with more thermally efficient ones and insulation added to the attic, making the dining room a cozier place to sit on a winter’s evening. The bar was rebuilt as well, though its décor retains the sense of Bavarian kitsch that lets you know you’ve come home to the mountains after you’ve been away for a while.
Gemütlichkeit radiates around this place, as sure a draw for return visits as the consistently superb (though not always traditionally German) food. The Ruoff family and their staff have always had a knack for making their diverse clientele feel welcome, whether it’s for a full meal in the dining room or drinks and snacks at the bar. Friendly, personable bartenders (who also happen to be great mixologists) and a terrific selection of German and other beers on tap and in bottles make the Brauhaus the neighborhood tavern of choice for many Gardinerites, who share the space with plenty of out-of-towners who know the place by reputation — especially among rock climbers, who have been a mainstay of the customer base since the 1950s. It is said that the christening of the informal climbers’ campground near the Trapps Bridge as “Camp Slime” was actually a humorous homage to their favorite watering hole and its original proprietor, “Slime” being “Emil’s” rendered backwards.
Emil Ruoff and his two brothers came to the US from Bodelshausen in southern Germany around 1917. Emil established a tavern at another site on Route 44/55 before building the core of what would become the Brauhaus: a modest rectangular structure that second-generation owner Margarete Ruoff calls “the diner on the corner.” Originally named the Sugar Bowl, it was conceived as a ‘50s-style roadhouse serving burgers and shakes and other “American” fare to hungry climbers and hikers. But the German DNA of its owner/operators kept creeping in; a vintage menu framed on the wall of the restaurant shows the word “sauerbraten” typed in at the bottom as an afterthought.
Emil Ruoff sold what had become the Mountain Brauhaus to his brother Eugen and his wife Rosa in 1963. Their son John eventually married Margarete, who immigrated to the US from a farm in northern Germany in the early ‘60s. According to their daughter, Ilka Casey, in the Old Country Margarete had attended kochschule, a sort of “apprenticeship to become a farm wife” where she learned cooking and sewing. But Margarete had other ideas, despite being engaged to be married to a local farmer. “She came by herself, she just sailed away,” Ilka relates. “She wanted to come to America for one year and make a lot of money.” Working at the Brauhaus, she met and fell and love with John Ruoff, went back to Germany for a while, broke up with her fiancé and came back. “It was a real love story,” says Ilka of her parents’ lengthy courtship.
“Oma” Margarete is an 80-year-old widow now, but her eyes still light up and her voice goes soft when she speaks of her “Johnny.” Together they raised four children, mostly on the premises, while managing the Brauhaus following Eugen and Rosa’s retirement. “My mother used to remark that the restaurant was being run by a farmer, a mechanic, a housewife and an accountant,” Ilka recalls. “Nobody was a trained restaurateur – although in Germany, in their homes people have a gastwirtschaft [informal tavern] and invite people in.” Among her many duties, Margarete initiated the practice of having the female waitstaff wear traditional dirndls, and eventually took over sewing them – a responsibility she still holds to this day. She also lent a hand in the kitchen when needed; until satisfied that a new chef was fully broken in, “She insisted that she cook every schnitzel,” Ilka notes.
One of those cooks, hired in 1998 and taking over as head chef in 2002, caught the eye of daughter Ilka, who put in her time waiting on tables on school vacations. His name is Kevin Casey; he’s still the genius in the Brauhaus kitchen, whipping up all manner of exotic seasonal specials along with traditional German fare, and he and Ilka now have three children: Morgan, 8, Piper, 13, and Oliver, 16, who recently began working as a busboy. Oliver shrugs shyly when asked what his ultimate career plans might be. “I don’t think he sees himself in a management role long-term,” says Ilka. “The girls are more envisioning it.”
Of the third generation of the Brauhaus family business, two siblings have mostly flown the coop: Sister Karin Ruoff Skalla runs a farm in Saugerties, but takes care of the gorgeous exterior landscaping and provides the flowers that Margarete makes into table arrangements. Brother Eugene Ruoff works as an engineer; “When something breaks down, we call him in,” Ilka says. Both she and her other brother, Mark Ruoff, toyed for a while with the notion that they might pursue careers other than running the family restaurant. Ilka studied film, English and exercise science at Ithaca College, and then spent a summer at the Finger Lakes School of Massage. She maintained a sideline as a certified professional masseuse until her children were born.
For his part, Mark spent a number of years as a world-class biathlon competitor, even choosing his college, Northern Michigan University, because of the sport. He got a degree in International Studies while participating in national championships and world junior championships — even Olympic trials for the biathlon, twice. “That was my life for a while,” Mark says. Many know him today as the prime mover behind the Shawangunk Nordic Ski Association.
But when their father John floated the idea of retiring and selling off the Brauhaus in the late 1990s, it was Mark who most wanted to take up the mantle of keeping the business in the family. In 2009, he, Ilka and Kevin formally assumed ownership, joined more recently as a full partner by Mark’s wife Veronica. This was another case of on-the-job romance: A fine art photographer, Veronica O’Keefe was working as a bartender at the Brauhaus while pursuing her degree at SUNY New Paltz, and Mark was smitten. They now have added two new members to the fourth generation of what can only be termed, at this point, the Brauhaus dynasty: Silvia, 3, and August, 1.
When the little ones aren’t running her off her feet, Veronica takes care of paperwork and graphic design for the business. “I’m still in charge of designing our special cocktail,” she says with pride. (It’s currently the Berry Picker: puréed local blueberries, freshly squeezed lemonade, Beacon-sourced Maid of the Meadow Honey Vodka and citrus bitters.) “This place is like another baby. It’s very demanding.” Mark is to be found most often behind the bar, Ilka in the dining room and Kevin in the kitchen; “Everybody just does whatever it takes to get it done,” Ilka says.
But what if the youngest crop of kids don’t want to take over when their turn comes? “They’re certainly going to grow up exposed to this experience. They’re not going to dodge it,” says Mark. “But it’s important that they know they can do it their own way,” Ilka adds. “We’re not at the point of thinking we want to get rid of it. We still like it.” “It’s a good meeting ground,” adds Margarete. Says Mark, “We are in it for the long haul.”
The Mountain Brauhaus is open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday and Tuesday (and typically for about a month each year from Christmas week until late January). Both lunch and dinner menu items are available all day and evening. Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options are always available. For reservations, call (845) 255-9766. To view the full menu plus seasonal specials, visit www.mountainbrauhaus.com.