Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Herwig's Austrian Bistro: A Shrine to Bacon

When I think about all of the places that I've visited, only one place triggers a Pavlovian response. Mention of State College, PA has that effect on me, and this is in large part due to Herwig's Austrian Bistro.

My fondness for bacon is not a secret. Regular readers of Graham's Travel Blog will recall that I have gone on at length about Norwegian Club Sandwiches and that one of my few travel regrets involves not purchasing a tube of bacon as discussed in Sweden: Food in Tubes, Fika and Assault.

Given my affinity for bacon, it should be no surprise that one of my favorite places in the world is basically a shrine to bacon.

Aside from the bacon, there are two things that really set Herwig's apart from all other restaurants: the food and the employees. Both of these elements come together at Herwig's in a way that keeps me coming back whenever I'm in town.

I've been to Herwig's several times, and I try to order something different on each trip. So far, everything that I've sampled from the brautwurst to the schnitzel to the Tyrolean Gröstl (potato hash with assorted meats), has been delicious. The menu, which is written out on a large blackboard, changes daily so that the freshest ingredients can be used. The staff prepares just enough of each dish that they think they can sell in a day, so they do run out of popular dishes. Those who arrive early are rewarded with the best selection.

Bacon is an important flavoring agent at Herwig's, and it finds its way into many of the dishes. In fact their motto is "Herwig's Austrian Bistro, where bacon is an herb."

Meals at Herwig's are typically large, and cleaning your plate is highly recommended as the cost of a to-go box is high. Smaller portions are available, and it's not a bad idea so that you can save room for one of their amazing desserts. The dessert selection changes regularly and can include such temptations as chocolate bacon cheesecake, chocolate dipped bacon and even maple brittle/bacon ice cream. Bacon-free desserts are also available.
For the record, eating the chocolate dipped bacon (with hazelnuts) or chocolate bacon cheesecake can be life changing experiences, but I'll pass on the bacon ice cream next time. The food is enough of a reason for a visit, but the people really make Herwig's shine.

At its core, Herwig's is a family affair that consists of wife Gundi at the cash register, son Bernd in the back making desserts and giving customers a hard time and, of course, Herwig himself.

If you ask for a smaller portion when placing your order, don't be surprised if Gundi asks you for your AARP card. This humor is the type that you can expect from all of the staff, and it tickles me to no end.

Bernd often entertains guests with puppet shows, well meaning health tips and the dispensation of to-go boxes...for a price. When a guest fails to finish their meal and declares the desire to take their food home, a game ensues as follows:

1. Bernd's eyes light up.
2. Bernd fetches a styrofoam box and a large wooden paddle.
3. Bernd balances the box on the paddle and tosses it to the customer.
4. If the customer can catch the box before Bernd hits them with the paddle, they can keep the box and take their leftover food home.

I've only seen this game take place once, but I'm guessing that the customer would get to keep the box even if they get hit. This may sound slightly barbaric, but it is all in good fun. Some say that Bernd is a bit of a jerk, but I don't see it that way. Of course, I nearly always clean my plate, but he did make me wear the chicken hat of shame once.

At last, we come to the ever charming Herwig. When he's not preparing food in the kitchen, he wanders about the tables delighting diners with stories about how he's been searching for the best winter tomatoes or telling the story of the pig that turned his daughter into a vegetarian. It should be noted that Herwig remembers that this particular pig tasted delicious.

The food and the people make Herwig's a resturaunt that I've recommended often and one to which I will continue to return. The only problem is that Herwig's is so darn hard to get to. If you ever have a layover in State College, you need to get a better travel agent. I understand that franchising opportunities exist, but even with the same food, Herwig's wouldn't be Herwig's without Herwig, Gundi and Bernd.

Of course, if a Herwig's opens in the Boston area then you can be sure that I'll be one of their first customers. If your travels take you anywhere near State College, PA, and you're a fan of bacon, then you owe it to yourself to visit Herwig's Austrian Bistro.

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  1. is seen to be a very quiet cafeteria for a break with friends!

  2. You would've loved Herwig's even more in the early days (pre-2006), when it was set off a hidden alley in a tiny space with maybe seven tables. It was easier for them to hit you with the stick back then.