Review:

But a more secure hideout and a far less pricey one would be one we came across 10 years ago in Switzerland's Emmental, that pastoral valley of cheese-makers and massive farm houses that lies between Bern and Lucerne. Leaving Lucerne by car one Saturday afternoon we headed for the countryside with the vague notion of ending in Bern for the night. In the farm village of Langnau we stopped for a refreshment at a likely looking hotel built in the Bernese Country House style. It was the Hirschen and after a look at one or two guestrooms we decided to stay the night.

The Swiss Hotel Association defines a Landgasthof or Country Inn as a hotel/restaurant "typical of the area with good cuisine, comfortable accommodation and adequate parking facilities. It is characterized by high quality and personal attention to the guests." The Hirschen is one of these. Our dinner there, after which owner-chef Walter Birkhäuser opened bottle after bottle of Swiss wine and shared with us the secret of making Rösti (set the potatoes in a window sill for few days after boiling, and fry them in lard), remains one of our most unforgettable travel experiences (Gemütlichkeit, January 1988). On that first visit, Herr Birkhäuser and his wife Marla didn't know about the travel newsletter Gemütlichkeit, they just liked Americans, particularly those who showed a little interest in wine and Swiss country cooking.

Earlier this year, after noticing the Birkhäuser name had been replaced on Switzerland Tourism's listing as proprietors of the hotel, we returned to the Hirschen to reassess the situation. Except for the café/breakfast room, which has been revamped, the hotel is the same; rustic, cozy, immaculate. The Hirschen traces its lineage to the mid-17th century when it was a popular tavern. The location, in the center of Langnau, in the heart of the Emmental, has made it a meeting point ever since. Today it is an ideal headquarters for auto travelers who wish to explore the Emmental's maze of backroads and many farm villages. And, being but a short walk from the rail station, it is equally convenient for train travelers.

Our assigned room, Number 21, is typical of the house, with simple pine furniture, adequate closet space, a comfortable bed, TV, and a serviceable bathroom. The hotel's major attraction, though, is its restaurant, which is arranged in three separate but contiguous dining areas and is done entirely (ceilings, walls, beams, dividers) in a golden-hued wood. The well-spaced tables and booths have white cloths, fresh flowers and low lamps. The effect is one of comfort and graciousness but not formality; women in slacks and men in open collar shirts will not feel out of place.

Under Herr Birkhäuser, the restaurant developed somewhat of a local reputation which seems to have been maintained under the new chef, Urs Weyermann, and is reflected in the prices. Main courses range from about 24 to 38 Sfr. ($18-$29), but the portions are massive; expect a second serving. As before, we dined well; this time on Rehfiletschnitzel, four tender filets of venison topped with banana and sliced grapes, and on Geflügelbrusten, a boned, roasted breast and leg of chicken. With it came the Hirschen's still-marvelous Rösti and sautéed snow peas and carrots. The venison was accompanied by Spätzle and a scattering of winter vegetables including Brussels sprouts and beets. Many European restaurants which take themselves seriously serve a small "gift of the house" to begin the meal. In this case it was a dollop of salmon tartar on a tiny, crisp waffle. We are fans of that Germanic staple, the Gemischter Salat (mixed salad). The Hirschen's version is an especially good one with leafy greens, julienned carrots, celery root, beets, and sliced cucumbers, tossed in a creamy, mustardy dressing, and topped with croûtons and grated hard boiled egg.

A surprise of our 1987 visit was finding a modest 18-room hotel sitting atop a vaulted, underground wine cellar of several thousand bottles from all over the world. Fortunately, the cellar had been restocked since our first visit when we had seriously depleted it. Remembering Herr Birkhäuser's fierce advocacy of Swiss wines we chose La Cretta (36 Sfr./$27), a Pinot Noir from the Valais and were not disappointed. With dessert, but not including beverages, dinner for two was 76 Sfr. ($57). In the course of the evening, we became aware of a lively table in a separate, almost semiprivate part of the dining room. This animated party of six tasted several wines, toasted each other from time to time, and were obviously enjoying themselves.

Near the end of the meal, we asked the waiter what had become the hotel's former owner. "Herr Birkhäuser?," he replied. "Why, he's right over there," indicating the table we had noted. So, while we had been discussing the whereabouts of Walter Birkhäuser, we had been looking at his broad back for an hour and a half. Following our 1987 visit, we had written a glowing report on the Hirschen, which maybe is why the Birkhäusers remembered us after so many years. We discovered they still own the hotel but no longer manage it, having retired in 1993 from that life of long days and short nights. It was good to see them hale and hearty. We would be hard pressed to name more than a handful of country hotels in its price category that match the Hirschen's cuisine, comfort and charm. In the 10 years since our last review, it hasn't lost a step.

Street Address: Dorfstrasse 17
City: Langnau im Emmental
District:  
Country: Switzerland
Phone: +41 34 402 15 17
Fax: +41 34 402 56 23
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Website: www.hirschen-langnau.ch
Quality: Rating: 3 stars
Value: Rating: 4 stars
Price Level: $$--
Type: Hotel