As usual, the Gasthof Fraundorfer is roaring. The long tables, the booths and banquets, have been filled for more than an hour. Frau Fraundorfer and her staff tote trays heavy with half-liters of beer and steaming plates of Bavarian farm fare. The clear tenor voice of Friedl cuts through the din. He wears Lederhosen, accompanies himself on the accordion, and has played this six-nights-a-week gig since 1959, with interruptions only for marriage and heart bypass surgery.
The 90 or so celebrants squeezed into the cozy, kitschy room are having the time of their lives, and judging by the rising noise level, most are on their third beer—at least. Three teen-aged boys, in traditional dress entertain the crowd with a Bavarian dance involving high leg kicks and loud thigh slapping.
It is just past 8:30pm, everyone has been watered and fed, the noise level is peaking and Freidl has begun to roll out some of his yodel standards, sad songs of love and death on the mountain. This is the "tipping point;" will the evening coast on to a quiet close or will there be conga lines and dancing on the tables? Either way Garmisch-Partenkirchen's Gasthof Fraundorfer is the Bavarian experience. Though it dates to 1857, this tiny family-run hotel and restaurant assumed its current role as goodtime headquarters for Southern Bavaria during the 1936 Winter Olympics, when it became an after-ski, after-sled, after-skate, hangout for both competitors and spectators.
We didn't find the Fraundorfer until 1979, but have returned many times since. In those 27 years, almost nothing has changed: the rough wood walls and ceiling darkened with age, the Olympic photos, the family pictures, the religious icons, the servers in traditional Bavarian dress, the music and every night a full house of happy customers. The indefatigable Barbara Fraundorfer still greets hotel guests at 7am and can usually be seen playing cards at the Stammtisch (regulars' table) around midnight, when we finally give up the ghost. During her 16 to 18-hour days she seems to be everywhere; bussing plates, chatting up grizzled regulars, charming the Americans at breakfast, waving goodbye to departing guests in the parking lot, and caring for her husband, Peppi, injured in a bobsled accident that has, after decades of surgery, finally confined him to a wheelchair.
For a long time, Friedl sang duets with Josef, a ski instructor who played a 12-string guitar. Inscrutable and gruff, Josef seldom smiled but made eye contact with every pretty woman who came through the door. Ruddy, round-faced Friedl is more outgoing. I used to note what this pair drank during an evening and, though it was a prodigious amount from 7pm to sometimes well after midnight, Friedl rarely left the stage for the men's room. And Josef never did – at least while I was keeping score. Josef stopped being there about 12 years ago.
Since, in the way of simple German restaurants, strangers are seated together at the Fraundorfer, one meets people there. A memorable connection happened on our first visit. We were placed with a group of German war widows who, when we sat down, arranged themselves so that the only English-speaker among them, Mathilde, was next to Liz and me. At the end of the evening she invited us to her home in the north, near Hanover. A week later we were sipping wine in the sitting room of Mathilde's well-kept two-story house. On the wall were pictures of four men, all in German military uniform. One or two wore swastika armbands. They were her husband and three brothers, all killed in World War II. That night and the next we slept in a spare bedroom. Each morning Mathilde fed us a gigantic breakfast in her garden and played Beethoven's Pastorale on the stereo. One night, we were invited to the family home of her sister, Erna, for an outdoor barbecue. It was a warm summer evening, with daylight until nearly 11pm. The grilled lamb and pork, the beer, the wine, the schnapps, and the toastings, went deep into the German night.
Mathilde and Erna later came to visit us. It was their first and only trip to the U.S. They stayed three weeks. A few years after that, Erna's daughter lived with us for several months as an au pair and also worked in our business.
Besides memories, music and beer, the Fraundorfer serves good—if not American Heart Association-approved—food. The menu is long, the prices low, the portions generous, and we have seldom been disappointed with any dish. Roast pork with dumplings is about $10, half a roast duck about $15, calves liver Berliner-Art (strips dipped in flour and fried in butter) is $17, and a small mixed salad costs around $3. Half a liter of beer goes for about $3.30.
The merriment goes on until midnight, though most tourists are gone by 10pm, when Trachten-dressed locals begin to gather at the Stammtisch.
I once asked an employee of the Garmisch-Partenkirchen tourist office if there were other restaurants in the area like the Fraundorfer. Her immediate reply: "There is only one Fraundorfer, and there every night is a party."
Though the restaurant is the main attraction, the Fraundorfer's 22 unpretentious Bavarian country-style rooms offer excellent value in the heart of Partenkirchen, the more authentic of the two towns. We prefer those in the guesthouse behind the main building.
Daily Rates: Singles €40-60, doubles €80-90
Contact: Gasthof Fraundorfer Ludwigstrasse 24, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, D-82467, telephone +49/08821/92 70
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 16/20
Restaurant Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 17/20