TAHOE CITY, Calif. - Finding the balance between honoring a tradition, yet keeping up with the new, is a challenge the Pfeifer House, a European dining house in Tahoe City, is learning in its 41st year.
The menu still offers traditional German cuisine like schnitzel and goulash. Low lighting still offers a cozy ski-lodge feel. The wine list is still extensive, and the restaurant is still owned and operated by the Fassbender family.
"To be the same owners for 40 years, much less a husband and wife," said sous chef Angela Fassbender, "they have built what I call an empire."
The biggest challenge for the family hit unexpectedly last year when owner and head chef Franz Fassbender died in a tragic accident. Franz was the face and the culinary master behind Pfeifer House. His wife Ute, son Kirk, and daughter-in-law Angela had no choice but to keep doing what they'd done so well for so long - the family kept cooking, kept serving, kept smiling.
"You can't stop life," Angela Fassbender said. "There was still a business to run. You have to stay busy and keep working."
Pfeifer House closed for a mere five days, reopening with Kirk taking the lead position in the kitchen.
"People probably didn't know who was going to cook," Kirk said. "It was a slow start."
Keeping true to Franz's recipes, yet trying new sauces and ideas, Kirk and Angela seem to have found their niche in the kitchen.
"We're getting compliments that the food is as good as when Franz cooked it, or better, which makes us feel good," Angela said.
Pfeifer House offers a variety of schnitzel as well as authentic Hungarian goulash, sauerbraten and peppered beef soutee filet-tips. Recently, the Fassbender family decided to add descriptions to the menu.
"Young people don't know what is on the menu at all," Ute said.
The descriptions help customers understand what bratwurst, geschnetzeltes and other European dishes are and how they are made. Pfeifer House also offers lobster, rack of lamb and New York steak, for those with a taste for the more familiar. Escargot appetizers come sizzling in a rich garlic butter, and traditional potato pancakes are served with a sweet fresh apple sauce. Regulars and visitors alike enjoy Pfeifer House's Bavarian apple strudel or strawberries romanoff.
Ute, with her jet black hair and thick German accent, still runs the front of the house. She speaks German with foreign customers and recommends dishes like the Vienna schnitzel holstein or paprikaschnitzel.
It has been nearly 50 years since she and Franz came to the United States from Dusseldorf, Germany, and running the business without her husband hasn't been easy. His presence, often serious and strict, is missed in the kitchen, Ute said, and his jovial charisma is missed in the dining room.
"He was so happy after cooking, he would change clothes and be at the bar," Ute said.
She described her husband as "picky" - "he hated anyone else's cooking," she said. The head chef now is perhaps not as social as his father, but Ute says Kirk is "a lot like his father - set in his German way."
The interior of Pfeifer House matches the menu in its authenticity and charm. Cuckoo clocks call out the hours while fires roar in old stone and tile fireplaces. Service staff are dressed in traditional German attire, complete with blonde hair and big smiles on fair skin. Wooden skis alongside mounted elk and moose heads decorate the dark walls.
"Modern restaurants can be cold," said Ute. "People come from the cities and they find it cozy."
Bavarian music plays in the background as Pfeifer House fills up during happy hour. On a weekend night the bar is packed, just as it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. Ute recalled when Pfeifer House was one of the first stops in Tahoe. She and Franz served celebrities such as Lucille Ball and Rock Hudson, and hosted special holiday parties.
"One night we were waiting for Ted Kennedy and his family," she said. "They came in really late and the whole family came in singing Christmas carols up the way."
Pfeifer House is one of the oldest restaurants on the lake, and one of the oldest buildings as well. In 40 years there haven't been too many changes. The recent happy hour, added menu descriptions, and flatscreen at the bar are modifications that aim to help Pfeifer House to best serve a changing market.
But then there are things the Fassbenders hope will never change.
"We want the people that come in now bringing in their kids," Angela said. "And their kids' kids, 40 years after that."