If the walls at Dorf Haus could talk in honor of the supper club and banquet facility’s 60th anniversary, you’d hear stories of how two generations of the Maier family established, grew, and operated the popular restaurant. Located in the Town of Roxbury just outside Sauk City, the setting seems plucked out of Bavaria and resembles a German bierhaus. The extensive display of artwork depicts famous German kings and castles through impressive stained glass, carvings, and antiques.
In 1950, before it was Dorf Haus, the property held Brownie Breunig’s Tavern, a grocery store, living quarters, and dance hall where Vern and Betty Maier held their wedding dance. Vern owned a construction business when the newlyweds started their family, which grew to nine children—five boys and four girls—over the next 20 years. In 1959, Vern stopped at the tavern for a beer and learned the owner wanted to sell. The dance hall had only been used in recent years for storage and playing basketball, but Vern thought it would make a great cabinetmaking shop. He bought the hall and renamed the business Vern’s Tavern and Grocery.
A pivotal event occurred, which unintentionally laid the groundwork for the establishment of Dorf Haus. “One day the compressor went out in the tavern, and Dad went to purchase one at an auction,” says son Monte, Vern and Betty’s sixth child. Ninth child, daughter Rebecca, adds, “The auctioneers lumped other unsold items with the compressor, so he also returned home with everything needed to start a restaurant. … Mom said, ‘What are we going to do with all of this stuff?’” Fate intervened, and the auction items didn’t stay in storage very long.
In 1961, Vern had a life-threatening accident, which led to his decision to close the construction business and eventually bartend at the tavern. “They owned the equipment,” says Monte. “So with encouragement from Uncle George, who owned the Wagon Wheel restaurant in Portage, they launched a restaurant to seat 25 people. The line of customers led out the door, and each took a number for all-you-can-eat chicken and fish for $1. Frog legs and bullheads were also on the menu. When customers told them the price was too low, they raised it by 25 cents.”
In 1963, change was in the wind again when the building next door blew up and majorly damaged the wall in the restaurant’s front seating area. When rebuilt, they enlarged and moved the bar across the dining area. The plan was to bring back wedding dances and have room to hold the reception. The first wedding event was held on February 16, 1963, and as the popularity grew, they connected the dance hall to the restaurant, added a side room, and enlarged the kitchen.
The next step was to start serving German food, so they came up with a small German smorgasbord with sauerbraten one night a week. The cuisine was chosen since Vern’s heritage was 100 percent German and Betty’s was 50 percent. Also, Roxbury was a Germanesque community with many Bavarian immigrants that made it feel like living in Germany. Vern and Betty, with the help of their high school English teacher who was a World War II translator, renamed the restaurant Vern’s Dorf Haus. In German, Dorf Haus means small village inn.
Expansion continued over the years. “A new back section was added in 1968 to accommodate a huge bar repurposed from Rohde’s Supper Club in Madison,” says Rebecca. “A game room and an alcove with a fireplace were established in 1973, and because the back deck was too sunny, it was enclosed to become the Antique Room, holding Vern and Betty’s incredible collection and a few tables for diners.” The room opens to a two-tiered deck leading to the flower garden, gazebo, foot bridge, and large old willow tree that has been a picturesque backdrop and site of many weddings and rehearsal cookouts.
Monte and Rebecca are the present-day owners and managers. “Monte started managing the bar and helped mom manage the supper club after dad had a stroke in 1983. He did everything except cook,” says Rebecca. “After graduating from UW–Madison in 1992, I was happy to jump on board full-time and split responsibilities with Monte and our parents. I focused on bookkeeping, marketing, events, media, hiring, and managing the dining areas. Mom and dad were our best teachers and continued to give advice and pitch in until they passed in 2012 at age 80 within 22 days of each other.” Growing up, all the Maier children helped bus tables, do dishes, wait tables, cook, and bartend from a young age. Currently, along with Monte and Rebecca, 10 family members work at the restaurant: a sister-in-law, Monte and Rebecca’s children, as well as nieces and nephews. Most have worked with them for 10 to 40 years.
The authentic German and American specialties on the menu include Wiener schnitzel, sauerbraten, rouladen, barbecue ribs, roast Long Island duckling, seafood, and their famous family-style chicken. In true supper club style, Dorf Haus is famous for their Friday night fish fry, Saturday night roast prime rib, and Sunday chicken dinner. The large salad bar features pickled gizzards, liver pâté, and handmade cheese spread. The notorious supper club bar drinks include the brandy old fashioned and, of course, ice cream drinks, such as the grasshopper, pink squirrel, golden Cadillac, and brandy Alexander.
A very popular Bavarian smorgasbord with live polka music and dancing is offered on the first Monday of the month year-round and also on the third Monday during summer. The tradition of serving roasted snapping turtle from the Mississippi River during Lenten season started more than 35 years ago. It’s offered Wednesday and Friday, and diners call weeks ahead to reserve their order, as it sells out quickly.
When viewed from outside, it’s hard to tell that Dorf Haus has 10,000 square feet. The restaurant seats 225 for sit-down banquets, 450 people for buffets, and two smaller dining rooms seat 100. Reservations are accepted on all days except Friday, when they’re only available for parties of eight or more. The wait can be up to 90 minutes at times.
Over the years, the restaurant has been anything but stagnant. Everyone will have to keep coming back to see what Monte and Rebecca have in store to celebrate with family and friends who have become family.
Lauri Lee is a culinary herb guru and food writer living in Madison, Wisconsin.