Where one finds locals having a drink and playing cards, one finds good food. Though this is still a theory and not yet a law, it seems to be a more reliable way of choosing a restaurant than looking at the cars parked out front (an unpretentious restaurant with well-heeled customers is supposed to mean good food) or trying to pick up subtle quality indicators from the menu posted at the entrance.
Actually, a tip on the Gasthof Steinerwirt, where we enjoyed two of the best down-to-earth meals of the past year or so, came from Phillip Prodinger, whose Feinschmeck Hotel is next door. The four ruddy-faced card players at a nearby table were simply icing on the cake.
Though most tables in the Steinerwirt's wood-paneled main dining room are covered with white and pink linen and have a vase of cut flowers, its easy going atmosphere is right up our alley. You'll feel perfectly at home in blue jeans.
The Steinerwirt's menu lists the same tried and true Austrian dishes as thousands of other Austrian restaurants; but like the Green Bay Packers of the 60s, who used the same basic plays as other teams, the Steinerwirt just executes them better.
Prosaic dishes like Schnitzel or Cordon Bleu are raised to a higher level at the Steinerwirt. In both, the crust was perfectly crisp and greaseless. The Cordon Bleus cheese was pungent and nicely melted and the veal in the Schnitzel tender and delicious. Accompanying pommes frites were perfection. Salads glistened with the freshest greens and vegetables, and the dressing had just the right tang to it. It seems pointless to describe such meals, since we've all had these dishes before. Seldom, however, have we had them this good.
Other starred items in our notes were a terrific celery soup and a dessert called Heidelbeerpalatschinke mit Vanillia Eis, a hip-enhancing combination of warm blueberry-filled crêpes with powdered sugar and cinnamon, vanilla ice cream, sliced almonds and Schlagobers (whipped cream).
Steinerwirt serves very good Tauern Gold vom fass (18 AS/$1.78) and what for us was a first, Jungwein Premiere. The time was November and, like France's Nouveau Beaujolais, Jungwein Premiere is the first red wine of the vintage. Delicious. A small carafe for two persons was 70 AS ($6.93)
Not including wine and beer, the meals for two persons averaged about 450 AS ($44).
This place is worth going a bit out of your way for.
• Gasthof Steinerwirt, Dreifaltigkeitgasse, Zell am See, A-5700, tel. 06542/2502, fax 06542/357871. Credit cards o.k. Inexpensive to moderate.
Rating: Above Average 15/20 G $
Zell am See
* Population: 8,000
* Altitude: 2,484 feet
Tourist Office: Kurverwaltung Zell am See, Brucker Bundesstrasse, A-5700 Zell am See.
* Phone 06542/2600-0
* Fax 06542/2032