With cooler weather, visitors seek out local color. Some flock to picturesque fields and markets or to twirling dirndls and overflowing mugs. Others arrive to rekindle family and community memories with the Waterloo County foods and flavors we are known for. They come for the Mennonite and German dishes that showcase our fields and pastures. These foods are served as amply as the hospitality of the Heidelberg Restaurant and Tavern.
The 162 year old restaurant in the village is one of the last of a bygone era of local rural stagecoach inns. While its menu includes a handful of contemporary dishes, it stays true to the warm, hearty Pennsylvania Dutch and German-style traditions. Some may see food as just home cooking, but make no mistake: simple isn’t always easy. Here in this old-school spot, these simple dishes are expertly cooked.
“It’s so important to have good food and make sure everything is okay,” says Bob MacMillan, who has co-owned the tavern with his wife Gayle for 36 years. “We do home cooking. We worked hard at it, focused on the food and we succeeded.
Chef Bruce Barnes (formerly of Christopher’s and Barnes’ Casual Dining) and his team of five create homemade meat dishes that showcase ingredients from their neighbors: Stemmler meats; seasonal produce from local farmers; pies from Hawkesville Bakery. The result is well done and generous to satisfy the biggest appetites.
“You’re going to tweak a few things, but the theme of the restaurant is the restaurant. You know you’re not going to change that,” Barnes says.
Many of the dishes would likely be familiar to pre-Confederation travelers who visited when the inn opened. The foundations of the restaurant are kept to the point even with changes, such as plant-based options, introduced as the menu changes over time.
Their smoked pork hocks are roasted in a burnt copper oven for three hours. They were a hit from the start, but demand skyrocketed after a Toronto-based Chinese journalist and German food enthusiast wrote about them, attracting guests from as far away as Beijing. Although not part of this review meal, I can say that their shanks are scrumptious.
Like the shanks, the ribs and pigtail dinner (Saturday special, $15.95) is a substantial plate. Served with a rustic mash topped with gravy, sauerkraut or vegetables and fresh coleslaw, the oven-roasted ribs have a bit of a crispiness to them with their meat falling off the bone. The mats are braised in a sweet brine punctuated with an array of aromatic and warming spices. The sticky, sweet meat is a joy to pull off those crispy bones. A guest once called them “meat candy”; I cannot disagree.
Hand-breaded before pressure frying, their chicken wings ($12.95) emerge with a crispy jacket around the tender meat. There is a range of sauces, but the fire and ice (a mix of honey, garlic and spiciness) provides a reasonable dose of heat with a savory sweetness.
For those who want something less substantial, the special soup of the day, Cajun gumbo ($5.95), is loaded with vegetables, al dente rice and chicken in a light thyme-infused tomato broth that carries a little of jalapeno. Filled with well-done slices, the beef on a bun ($14.50, plus $3 Caesar salad upgrade) is no frills. You’ll be offered mustard or horseradish, but a topping of the barbecue rib sauce works just as well. The accompanying Caesar, sprinkled with bacon and croutons, is an appropriate accompaniment.
Barnes’ handmade butter pies are famously delicious, but there’s pie ($5.95 a slice). The Dutch apple is a guest favorite and the pumpkin is perfect for the season.
Heidelberg is one of those places that quietly continues to showcase great local ingredients in flavorful dishes with the spirit of gemütlichkeit that is deeply rooted in this community. Here, MacMillan and his team deliver what many strive to create and find: a taste of place.
“Everything is big here, huh? ” he says. “We feed you. We’re not going to let you go away hungry.
Restaurant and Tavern Heidelberg
3006 Lobsinger Line, Heidelberg
Facebook and Instagram: @oldehidelberg
Hours: Tuesday and Wednesday: 11 a.m. – 8 p.m., Thursday: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday: 11 a.m. – 8 p.m., Sunday: noon – 7 p.m.; Monday: closed.
Menu: Hearty Pennsylvania Dutch and German-Canadian home-style dishes with familiar bar fare. Most dinners are available in full portions and half portions, or without garnish (meat and bread only). Plant-based eaters have a limited choice (burger and (fake) chicken fingers), but other options are being developed. Daily specials. Flour and flour products are in the kitchen, but some gluten-free options may be available (please ask when ordering).
Drinks : Wines, popular beers.
Payment: Cash, debit, Mastercard, Visa,
How to get your food: Dinner: Four dining rooms and a patio. Reservations accepted (and recommended for weekends)
Pre-ordered pickup: Call to place your order. Walk in. No delivery.
Accessibility: Good. The building is a heritage building, but there is a wheelchair ramp at the entrance and the restrooms are wheelchair accessible. The dining room is friendly for people with reduced mobility. The menu is clear and easy to read; it is translated from English into German and Chinese. Lighting is good. The music is not intrusive. Parking on site.
The law project: $69.29 — for two each: appetizers, main courses, desserts.
Ordering food in the time of coronavirus: As restaurants make day-to-day decisions, please check their social media or call them for updates. Lists of restaurants open during dining room closures are available at https://bit.ly/3d2JV74 and wilmotstrongertogether.ca; a crowdsourced list can be found on Facebook’s Food in the Waterloo Region at bit.ly/3d1cKAX