Last weekend I went to State College PA (a small town where Penn State University is located) with Jessika, her husband, and baby daughter, nickname Schnappi . One of their good friends was getting married and he was in the wedding. I tagged along to watch my beautiful 8 month old niece. While Jessika and her husband were enjoying a weekend of wedding festivities my niece and I had a lot of fun exploring the quaint college town. On our first day there we stumbled upon a quirky Austrian restaurant called Herwig’s Austrian Bistro (I really did stumble, it was extremely hot and my stroller pushing skills aren’t that great). I was starving and looking for a place to cool down and eat so we went on in.
It was a little early in the evening so Schnappi and I were the only customers in there at first. The entire restaurant’s layout is very open: there are many tables including a couple family style dining tables. The main kitchen is exposed so you are able to see the cooks preparing your food. The atmosphere is relaxed: you order your food at the main counter and the menu is written on a giant chalkboard which they change almost daily depending on what fresh ingredients they are working with that day.
For example, I was taking my time looking at the menu and getting Schnappi out of her stroller and the chef (who turned out to be the owner also) gave me a small cup of a fresh chilled beet soup to taste. All of the ingredients were from his organic garden, it was delicious and very refreshing. He asked if I had any questions, and of course I did — I needed to know what was gluten free! When I started asking if such and such had flour as an ingredient, he immediately asked if I had a gluten allergy and then told me one of his cooks, John, was just recently diagnosed with a gluten intolerance. John came over and we started talking about being gluten free and how we felt significantly better when we cut gluten out of our diet. He was saying at first he thought it was going to be hard but in reality it has made him eat even healthier. Although being in a small town John didn’t have a great selection of gluten free beers and he is getting a little tired of drinking cider : ).
He helped me choose a dish that would be gluten free. I did have to ask for some substitutions with the side dishes but they did not get annoyed or charge me extra. I ordered chicken sausages with a cold potato salad and a green salad with a traditional creamy dill dressing. It was delicious! I told them I would be coming back the next day with my sister and the chef said he would make one of his Viennese specialties – a flourless chocolate almond torte which he says he makes gluten free, but as some of you may know just because cakes say flourless it doesn’t the chefs do not use flour (most bakers still put flour in the pan so these kind of cakes don’t stick. When I arrived the next evening I was very happy to see he kept his word. The torte was delicious! It was velvety, not too heavy, and the nut pieces really made the cake more dynamic in its flavor.
Some things I think are important to note:
They revere the pig (see above). The place is decorated with funny pig-themed chotchkies and they do pride themselves on making chocolate covered bacon but vegetarians don’t be afraid! Herwig’s has several vegetarian dishes that I am sure would not disappoint. The only negative review I can give is that the saurkraut is NOT gluten free, he uses a roux in his recipe. When we told our German mother this she was appalled, but the chef was unapologetic and swears it makes it delicious.
Also some of their fresh sausages are made with a little bit of beer so just make sure you are clear about your allergies. After reading some reviews online I feel that the restaurant gets a bad reputation because of its service. Now I have to say that when I first got there I sensed some major sarcasm from the owner but I noticed some funny signs on the walls and on the menu saying things like- “If you do not pronounce the dishes on the menu correctly while ordering you will not get to eat!”. So I inferred that the attitude was just a spiel, and I was correct.
Everybody there was nice, helpful, and you can tell they were very proud of the food they make and rightfully so. All in all the food was absolutely delicious. This has to be because they make all of their sausages in house from local meat and their menu is dictated by what is fresh and ready in the garden. Everything was cooked to perfection and seasoned wonderfully and the fact that they made sure to have one of their a gluten free desserts available for the next day (since I said we were coming back) made the return trip even more enjoyable.
This is the sort of service that makes small-town, locally-owned restaurants such a joy. They listen to their customers, they take pride in their food, and they treated us like we were their friends, not just another potential tip. Although there are many things on their menu that we can’t (or won’t) eat, they were very helpful, accommodating, and willing to cater to our specific needs. Considering that they do not advertise themselves as a “gluten free” venue, we were able to enjoy several delicious dishes, and the staff made us feel comfortable asking them to make a few modifications to their standard fare. We didn’t feel like we were putting them out and that’s the sort of service we want. If you have the pleasure of visiting this restaurant, we hope you will and tell them hello for us. In the meantime, never be afraid to try out different places and ask for gluten free meals; if restaurants cannot accommodate you, then at least you can encourage them to expand their menu. Thanks, Herwig’s!
-J & V
P.S. This experience has inspired Jessika to take a traditional Austrian/German meal- weinerschnitzel, spaetzle, and a green bean salad and make gluten free for you and me! Stay tuned for the recipes.