Friday, 29 January 2010

The Roter Ochse, Heidelberg

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The Roter Ochse, Heidelberg - signage
Source: Zum Roten Ochsen website

'I really want a proper German meal this evening,' announced Martyn as we boarded the train at Frankfurt Airport headed for a couple of days of meetings in Heidelberg.

Cruising toward Mannheim Hauptbahnhof on the plush and punctual Deutsche Bahn ICE service, ruthlessly efficient as most things German tend to be, I contemplated the prospects of actually finding anything to eat on a menu which to misquote Henry Ford, allows you to have anything you want to eat, so long as it's meat. Perhaps, I thought to myself, I'd suggest just heading downstairs to the Marriott restaurant where I knew the menu would be slightly more accommodating.

At the Marriott Heidelberg reception Martyn asked if the concierge could recommend a good traditional German restaurant in the town. He suggested a place which made Martyn's face light up – a good restaurant that brewed its own lager on the premises. What the hell? I thought. After all, the last time I was in Germany was 1994 and I figured they must have embraced vegetarian dishes by now.

After sitting on our posteriors all day in various planes, trains, taxis and meeting rooms, we decided it would be a nice idea to take a brisk walk to the restaurant, perhaps seeing a bit of Heidelberg while we were there, rather than just ferrying ourselves between hotel and meetings like we'd usually do. The concierge handed us a map, drew the route with a Biro and told us it would probably take about half an hour to walk, so off we strolled food-wards, along a wide boulevard dominated by nineteenth century architecture with subtle Gothic details and interspersed with sleek modern hotels.

Along Hauptstrasse in the old town we commented how well they had integrated modern store fronts with the old buildings and tried to avoid feeling disappointed at the prevalence of brands we'd be used to on high streets in the UK and feeling somewhat surprised to see two brands we regard as defunct (Woolworths and C&A) still open for business.

Further along Hauptstrasse the modern shops were replaced by more classically old German pubs and restaurants, any sleek and trendy places standing out as incongruously as our attempts at pidgin German to ask directions when we acknowledged we didn't have a clue where we were supposed to be heading, the map suddenly offering no clues and the wan glow from the street lamps making it nigh on impossible to read it anyway,

With every seemingly traditional German gasthaus that we passed, and with growing appetites, Martyn would growl 'If this place we're heading to is modern, we're going to that place,' and as we rounded the corner finally into Leyergasse and saw the place we'd been recommended, all bright lights and atmosphere denuded of tradition we backtracked and ducked into the Roter Ochse, whose signage proclaimed that it had been built in 1703.

The signage also said that this was a traditional student pub, which initially brought back uncomfortable memories of the Union bar at university, though this was dispelled almost instantly when we opened the door and the sound of a raucous piano sing-along filled our ears. We took the end of a table, taking in the low ceiling and walls, every inch cluttered with photos, memorabilia and all manner of other ephemera from the pub's past.

Over a couple of local beers we perused the simple printed menu, finding to my horror that acceptance of vegetarians hadn't progressed that much in fifteen years. We ordered some potato soup, and I found the singular meat-free dish on the menu (a rich mushroom stew with a single dumpling and pickled side-salad), both of which were full of rustic flavour. As we talked and put the world to rights, the pianist, Rudi, rested his newly-refreshed steiner on the top of the ancient upright piano and hammered out a combination of familiar German songs and Broadway show tunes, occasionally leading his friends at the front of the pub to engage in rapturous baritone singing. Every time he picked up his beer and headed back toward his friends, one hand signalling very clearly that he was done playing, grunts of dissent made him head back to the stool, grinning, clearly enjoying his moment in the spotlight.

The music and sporadic laughter, combined with a place more full of character than I think I've ever been to before, leant the place a conviviality that I suppose I wasn't expecting when we set of for the town that night. As we left, at a relatively respectable 10.30, we realised that we were the only customers left. Apologising to the landlord, we found ourselves being told about the history of the Roter Ochse. Amazingly in this world where tradition is all too often usurped by commercial ambition and the seductive nature of the profit margin and the bottom line, we discovered from Philipp Spengel that the pub had been in the same family for six generations since it had opened.

The history is well documented on the pub's website, but by way of short précis, the Spengel family ownership of the Roter Ochse began with the purchase of the premises by Albrecht Spengel in September 1839, and became a firm favourite among students under the stewardship of Albrecht's son Carl; later, as other descendants took the reins the guest book was filled by numerous luminaries from the arts world and science disciplines. For us, it was just a great place to eat, drink and talk.

Sated, both in terms of sustenance and ambiance, we headed back to the hotel, pausing briefly to consider getting a cab before agreeing to hit the pavements again instead.

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