In Sanford, an October Surprise
Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café serves up a convincing German beer hall experience for Oktoberfest.
Germany is a huge country with so many regional variations that it’s almost impossible to define “German” food.
Sausages and schnitzel come from the northern Saxon area; noodles and pot roast are from Bavaria in the southeast; and potato pancakes are from Rhineland in the west. However, when a sausage, a pancake and red cabbage are served with a big glass of beer, it’s safe to say you’re in a German restaurant.
Even though the beer-fueled festival called Oktoberfest actually starts in September in Germany and in steadfast German-American communities, around here October is the usual time for celebrating with a schnitzel and a giant brew. And apart from the slice of Munich that is Epcot’s Biergarten restaurant, Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café in Sanford is as close as we get to the atmosphere of a German beer hall.
Energetic crowds, beer, music, beer, food, beer—it’s all there.
Owners Theo and Linda Hollerbach bought Willow Tree in 2001. Theo brought his family recipes with him from Köln, Germany, and uses them well. Although 50 German beers would in themselves make almost any menu a success, the restaurant also serves a most satisfying spread.
In hot climates, spices make you sweat and cool down. Germany gets pretty cold, so heat is replaced by heft: dark bread, stewed meats, densely packed sausage. Your body temperature cranks up just trying to digest dishes like the sublime Himmel und Erde (heaven and earth, $12.50), potatoes mashed with apples, onions and bacon, and served with smoked pork and house-fermented sauerkraut.
In Germany, the art of meat preparation and sausage-making is king, and Hollerbach’s gets the finest examples I’ve seen outside of Berlin. Unless you start shivering pretty quickly, an order of the Schlachthaus Platte ($26.59)—knockwurst, bratwurst, weisswurst (veal sausage), Leberkäse (pork meat loaf) and smoked pork loin—will probably put you to sleep and add an extra
Schnitzel (thinly pounded cutlets of veal, pork or chicken) is served eight ways, each as good as the next and most with a superbly executed breading. Schnitzel Holsteiner ($15.99-$20.49), a dish from Berlin, is an intriguing combination of salty, tart and savory, topped with a fried egg, anchovies and capers. Zigeuner ($13.99-18.99), or “gypsy” schnitzel, replaces breading with sweet paprika and a topping of peppers and onions.
Germans are obsessive about beer, and each taste has a corresponding brew. The most popular draft at Hollenbach’s is Bitburger Pilsner (“Bitte ein Bit” is the way to say “Please, one Bitburger”), a light, hoppy dry mug. My favorite is Gaffel Koelsch, a creamy ale similar to India Pale Ale from Britain. Servings run from a 10-ounce glass for $4.25 to a giant liter mug at $10.98.
Most weekends there is what’s called “Schunkel Abend,” which means a sing-along where folks join arms and sway back and forth to German favorites. It’s better than it sounds.
The Willow Tree celebrates Oktoberfest on Oct. 8, when the city of Sanford closes First Street for dancing, live music and much serving of beer. Raise your glass and say prosit!
Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café
ADDRESS 205 E. First St., Sanford
Other German Restaurants
The Bavarian architecture and Alpine clocktower make Epcot’s Germany pavilion the perfect setting for a massive beer hall buffet straight out of Munich. That impressive setting, massive amounts of food (from sauerbraten to strudel) and German bands playing every half-hour amount to a year-round Oktoberfest.
ADDRESS: 1200 Epcot Resort Blvd., Lake Buena Vista
ENTREES: all-you-can-eat buffet $19.99 lunch; $32.99 dinner, plus park admission
The Bavarian Haus
The menu here covers the full German experience, from Bavaria (rich and paprika-ed obazda cheese appetizer, $6.95) to the Rhineland (hearty braised-beef sauerbraten, $10.95).
ADDRESS: 1201 Winter Garden-Vineland Road, Winter Garden
The definition of gemütlichkeit (coziness) in Orlando since 1987. Bremen and Bavarian specialties share space with treats from Holstein (Schnitzel mit Ei und Kapern; cutlet with egg and capers, $15.95) and Konigsberg (Klopse mit Meerrettich Sosse; dumplings with horseradish gravy, $15.95), and an extensive vegetarian menu.
ADDRESS: 8015 S. Orange Ave., Orlando
Bavarian Restaurant Bar and Grill
What this roadside restaurant along 17-92 lacks in ambience, it makes up for with an interesting assortment of dishes. Zwiebelkuchen ($4.99), a rich onion pie from south-central Germany, followed by Leberkase ($10), a pork liver meatloaf from Bavaria, would stick to anyone’s ribs. Or go, pardon the expression, whole hog with the Swabian Battle Platter ($17) of bratwurst, knackwurst, smoked pork chop and sauerkraut.
ADDRESS: 300 S. Highway 17-92, Longwood