Rolf’s German Restaurant, on the corner of Twenty-second and Third, is unremarkable in most respects: bland and overpriced food, surly staff, a phone that’s never answered, and a faded exterior lurking beneath a scaffold. Yet each December, droves of tourists line the sidewalk and peer in the windows from noon to closing, waiting up to two hours for a quintessential New York City bucket-list experience that seems to be off the radar of most locals I know.
Beyond Rolf’s wooden doors is a Christmas decoration extravaganza that puts even the famous Dyker Heights lawn displays to shame.
The restaurant is bedecked with over fifteen thousand ornaments and hundreds of thousands of lights. Colored orbs, ribbons, glass teardrops, interlacing tree branches, gilded chandeliers, and icicles dangle over the crowd, which is packed sequin-to-sweatshirt into the bar area, craning over shoulders to snap selfies and maneuver their holiday cocktails without spilling. The room smells of body heat, lotion, and wool. As I hunker beneath a coat rack, peering at a couple wrangling with a piece of schnitzel, the bourbon-laced eggnog provides a welcome antidote to the claustrophobia.
The decorations reportedly cost the restaurant almost seventy thousand dollars a year and take six weeks of overnight work to install. They appear in early fall and stay up through the spring, but Christmas is the best time to visit Rolf’s. The crowds of revelers are part of the experience, complete with Santa hats and rosy cheeks, raising their glasses of mulled wine to the dolls that stare down, unsmiling, from the pressed-tin ceiling.
“We need a SWAT team. And a helicopter,” mumbles a woman, slithering past puffer jackets and ducking under beer steins. “I hope we’re only staying for one drink, because this is not happening,” huffs his friend. “And I waited in the cold for this!” “It’s an experience,” she insists. “At least now you can say you did it!”
But I say give me any of the city’s other crowded holiday attractions—Rockefeller Center with its armed police, Serendipity 3 with its hour-long wait for frozen hot chocolate, Macy’s with its lines of Santa-bound toddlers, and even Dyker Heights, with its lurching queue of cars—or give me Rolf’s, where the jam-packed-ness of it all is the very reason you are here.