Rolf’s NYC: Christmas sleigh or neigh?

Relatively ignored during the off-season, Rolf’s is packed until closing from November to January. Do the reviews and social media exposure live up to the hype at this German bar?


Irum Han

(Irum Han for WSN)

Julia Diorio, Staff Writer

Christmas in New York is famous for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular show, its Rockefeller Center decorations and window displays galore. As a born and raised New Yorker, even I am guilty of feeling giddy when I see Macy’s Herald Square cover its windows in anticipation of the big reveal. 

Tourists flock to the most popular spots to take their perfect Christmas pictures. They grin widely underneath the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree despite fighting tooth and nail to even get to the railing. While these places are famous all year round, Rolf’s German Restaurant, which is Gramercy Park’s own winter wonderland, is known for its extravagant Christmas decorations which upstage their cuisine during the holidays. You find more photos of their twinkling lights and enchanting ornaments online than the classic German schnitzel or sauerbraten. Located at 281 Third Ave., Rolf’s reservations typically fill up starting in early fall. You can try your luck on a walk in, but lines run down the block with wait times that can be up to two hours.  

The restaurant itself is primarily a mom-and-pop establishment. They serve traditional German food with large portions and have a vast drink menu. The decorations cover the ceiling in a conglomeration of garland, lights, icicles and shiny ornaments. It’s impossible not to feel festive when you’re inside. The only issue is that when you’re inside, the chances you’ve waited nearly two hours and are shoulder to shoulder with the person next to you are pretty high. So the question remains, is Rolf’s worth it? 

Reviews at Rolf’s are purely about the decor. When the food is mentioned, some customer reviews call it tasteless and overpriced. Some complain about the staff being “short” and the bartenders “having an attitude.” But if I’m a bartender working at a place that’s packed with tourists day and night, with gaudy Christmas decor shoved in my face at all times, I highly doubt I’d be on top of the moon either. So we’ll give the staff a pass on this one. 

In an interview with Punch magazine, the bouncer Justin goes so far as even to call himself “a bearer of bad news about reservations and Christmas.” He describes dealing with people who try to bribe him to get to the front of the line, and even tourists who try to sneak in through the kitchen entrance around the back. Rolf’s hires seasonal staff members to deal with the crowds, but even then it can’t be easy to spend your Christmas season apart from your family and dealing with angry customers. 

Social media attention has grasped tourism by the throat. Most people no longer use Yelp and Tripadvisor to plan their meals, instead, they look at geotags on Instagram to see the food that looks the best. Especially around Christmas, everyone wants to have the perfect night out, the perfect Christmas trip, and the perfect Instagram photo to post with the caption “Sleigh!” 

The best reviews come from those who stop in at the bar for drinks, take their Christmas pictures and go on their way. Their drink menu is pretty extensive, covering everything from mulled wine to red wine from Australia. So, as a place that seems to be consumed purely for holiday social media content, how is it that Rolf’s stays in business? 

That’s a question that has yet to be answered. There is always something to be said about budgeting, and while Rolf’s average yearly profit is unknown, having a packed restaurant from noon to 10:30 p.m. for four months out of the year definitely helps the cause. Once reservations fill up, Rolf’s doesn’t answer the phone. Often, that’s the beginning of October. Even so, we reached out to some customers who had varying thoughts about the iconic Christmas bar.

Emily Padilha Gomes visited Rolf’s over Thanksgiving weekend.

“I couldn’t get a reservation to sit and eat,” Gomes said. “They wouldn’t answer the phones and it’s hard to make a reservation. I had to stay in line for 30 minutes. But when I got in the restaurant was really beautiful and worth all the hype. The drinks were expensive, but I knew that before I went. They’re very fast to take your order and see that you get a drink — the restaurant is beautiful.”

Amy Van Ness said that she found Rolf’s on Instagram and thought it looked like a Christmas dream. But when she visited, she said it was stupidly expensive.

“One drink is $35-plus,” Van Ness said. “We tried calling six times to make a reservation and the phone wouldn’t even ring, just immediately got disconnected. We got there to find a super long line for both reservations and bar only. Everyone seemed a bit cranky and didn’t match the magical ambience of the place itself.”

Instead, she recommends the ale house Paddy Maguire’s, two blocks down from Rolf’s.

“It had a much better people vibe and still has the Christmas decorations going to the max,” Van Ness said. “The prices were better and still gave you the warm fuzzies you expect when it’s the holiday season.”

Janelle Hague visited Rolf’s to enjoy the ambience of festive lights this time of year.

“We did not have a reservation, therefore we were only able to stand at the bar and order drinks,” Hague said. “The drinks were expensive and very mediocre, but it was honestly worth it because we really enjoyed the beautiful decorations.”

At the end of the day, Rolf’s magical decorations truly are an essential part of Christmas, and it’s always fun to cozy up in a restaurant with friends and toast the holiday season.

Contact Julia Diorio at [email protected].