On the outskirts of Tahoe City, a German-style restaurant has been serving schnitzel, escargot and traditional European dishes since 1939. Ute Fassbender greets me an hour before Pfeifer House opens, sharing memories and stories of her late husband, Franz, about his lifelong love of creating traditional German cuisine and how she ended up in Tahoe from their hometown Düsseldorf, Germany. Her son and sous chef, Kirk, and his wife, Angela, are in the kitchen, busily preparing for the night ahead.
Ute came to the Tahoe Sierra in 1972 when Franz was invited to spend a summer at the Pfeifer House (then called the Tahoe Inn) by fellow German and previous owner Herman Schaeffer and his wife Lois Pfeifer for which the restaurant is named. Franz had been a cook and took him up on the offer. The couple bought the business from Schaeffer, along with another German, Henry Obermueller.
In the late 1970s through the 1980s, business at the Pfeifer House was booming because they were one of the only restaurants in the area.
“There were not a lot of new ideas and different ways of eating. There wasn’t even a Safeway here. The only places to eat were at River Ranch, Bacchi’s, Swiss Lakewood and us,” Ute says. While food trends have changed a bit, people still come to Pfeifer House for its staple items that can’t be found anywhere else, such as the many variations of schnitzels and traditional German-style dishes.
With all of the competition, Ute says that what keeps people coming back is the traditional food and full-sized meals included in a single cost. Most dinners come with a soup or salad and a main course served with a vegetable available from $22 to $42.
“Escargots are very popular, even the kids like them,” Ute says.
Throughout the years, Pfeifer House has served famous faces — Lucille Ball, Rock Hudson, Dan Blocker and Ted Kennedy. It was also a filming location for the 1982 movie “Forbidden Love.”
Franz died in 2012 and Obermueller retired years ago. Ute says that what keeps her around is all of the nice people she met over the years and the support she’s received from the local community. She adds that she loves seeing the generations of families that keep coming back, although she doesn’t recognize some of the faces of the kids after 20 years have gone by. She also admits that she couldn’t have kept Pfeifer House going without her son Kirk stepping in and picking up where Franz left off.
During our conversation, Pfeifer House opens and people start filtering in. Angela brings out some potato pancakes served with applesauce followed by escargot and Bismark Herring Garnie for Ute. This is the first time I ever had escargot aka snails served in a bubbling garlic butter sauce. They have the consistency of a mussel matched with a stringent earthy aftertaste.
Longtime Tahoe resident Herbert “Hubie” Alber and his friends have come in to celebrate his 68th birthday. The group called in two days before and special ordered a Long Island Duckling Feast for two to mark the occasion. Alber has been visiting the Pfeifer House since the Fassbenders took it over. Meanwhile, Angela comes to our table with Pfeifer House’s famous potato leek soup. It is creamy, hearty and simple with big chunks of potato swimming in a thick broth.
“It’s even popular in the summer, a big party just came in and they all ordered the soup,” Angela says. “Ninety percent of our things are made in house. And Kirk picks out the meat and hand cuts it every day.”
The main course is the Cordon Bleu Schnitzel, which consists of a huge chunk of breaded pork loin full of Swiss cheese and ham served alongside a decent-sized portion of zucchini, multi-colored bowtie pasta and a group of thinly sliced potatoes doused in a flavorful demi glaze sauce. At the table next to us, a scoop of vanilla ice cream comes out with a birthday candle on top and everyone starts singing to Hubie. He yodels loudly.
After finishing an incredibly flavorful and full plate of food coupled with a Top Notch Manhattan, I feel too full to move. Somehow I waddle out the door, already planning what schnitzel I’m going to have next.
“We try to work our hardest and do our best. It’s been the same owner for 45 years and the family is trying to keep it going,” Angela says.
The Pfeifer House is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday from 5:30 to 9 p.m.; reservations are recommended. | (530) 583-3102, pfeiferhouse.com
Pfeifer House’s Top Notch Manhattan
2 oz. Knob Creek bourbon whiskey
½ oz. of Antica Vermouth
Shake well and pour into a martini glass with a Bing cherry.
Dash of orange bitters