(Bloomberg) -- Since its opening in 803 A.D., Salzburg’s St. Peter Stiftskulinarium has served the likes of Christopher Columbus, Johann Georg Faust, and hometown hero Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But resting on its laurels as Europe’s oldest restaurant, a title it claims by its own estimation, was no longer cutting it for the 1,200-year-old Austrian icon. Last year it changed its name, expanded its wine list, and swapped its static food offerings for a monthly changing tasting menu that puts a modern twist on Austrian standbys. As a result, it earned a prestigious rating of two out of five toques from the French restaurant guide Gault Millau for the first time.
But none of that means St. Peter Stiftskulinarium is done looking to the past. Now through the end of December, its menu celebrates the 200th anniversary of Silent Night, whose lyricist, Josef Mohr, grew up performing in the Benedictine abbey attached to the restaurant. From the cotton snow drifts and fir trees in the 11 cavernous dining rooms to the warm apple strudel for dessert, the result may just be the world’s most festive Christmas dinner.
A Rich Cultural Experience
Creating a menu based off a Christmas carol—one whose lyrics stay true to the holiday’s Biblical origins, no less—might seem like a bad idea. (Or, at the very least, unhygienic.) But in Austria, the “all is calm, all is bright” sentiment of the song echoes the concept of Gemütlichkeit, a version of Danish hygge that similarly describes the art of cozying up during winter’s dark days. Many Austrians associate it with yuletide comfort foods like roasted goose and molasses-spice cookies called lebkuchen, says famed Austrian-born chef Wolfgang Puck, adding that a long, indulgent meal such as the one on offer at St. Peter Stiftskulinarium is practically a cultural requirement during the holidays. “The whole thing about Gemütlichkeit is being together,” he says. “You sit around and talk and talk and talk.”
At St. Peter Stiftskulinarium, you’ll talk and talk over appetizers including maultaschen (literally translated: “mouth bags”), a type of local ravioli filled with tender Tyrol mountain lamb. They steam when you cut into them, their salty kick balanced by a hearty shaving of black winter truffles. You’d be wise to order the confit of char as your entree—it’s sourced from nearby Bluntautal and soaked in rich hazelnut milk—though there’s also an excellent saddle of suckling veal from Austria’s Tennengau region served with chestnut hash and a gooey crumble of dried egg yolk. Pair it with the restaurant’s own cuvée, the Heiliger Rupert (“Holy Rupert”), named for Salzburg’s patron saint and made with blaufränkisch, merlot, and zweigelt grapes in partnership with the beloved local favorite Heribert Bayer winery.
Save room for dessert. The ones on the menu are rich and fragrant of Christmastime spices: Bohemian liwanzen (spongy yeast pancakes with sour cream and elderflower), chestnut parfait with figs and mulled wine, Salzburger nockerl (a sweet soufflé with cranberries), and, of course, an expert apple strudel served warm from the oven. Add Christmas carols overhead and a traditional brass band playing live in the courtyard, and it’s the definition of holiday cheer.
It should go without saying: Dinner at St. Peter Stiftskulinarium is not for bah-humbug types or holiday skeptics. It’s also more touristy than your typical boldface destination restaurant. On a recent visit, my wife and I found it delightful regardless.
More Christmassy Than the North Pole
Even beyond the stone arcades of St. Peter Stiftskulinarium, entering the medieval old city of Salzburg is like walking into your favorite Christmastime fairy tale. Its main holiday market, Salzburger Christkindlmarkt, is an enchanting smattering of wreath-festooned stalls where merchants hawk handcrafted ornaments, knitwear, and sweets like krapfen (jam-filled doughnuts) and schaumgebäck (meringue cookies). There’s plenty of Glühwein to wash it all down. It’s also worth trekking 20 minutes outside the city center by bus to Hellbrunn Advent Magic, an illuminated market that features a giant advent calendar and offers sleigh rides pulled by actual reindeer. And if your holiday dinner inspires you to dig deeper into the area’s carol-obsessed history, head to the Silent Night Chapel in nearby Oberndorf, where Mohr and his composer, Franz Xaver Gruber, first performed the song.
How to Plan Your Trip
Want to get into St. Peter Stiftskulinarium while the season’s still going strong? Reservations are taken by phone or email and are best booked a week or two in advance. To get there, fly into Salzburg Airport W.A. Mozart. (You may need to make a pit stop in Vienna along the way.) Stay at Hotel Sacher, a grand five-star property whose Café Sacher is world-famous for—what else?—its Sacher torte, a pillowy chocolate cake created there in 1832. The hotel has an ideal location just across the river from the city’s main shopping thoroughfare, Getreidegasse. And besides your Silent Night dinner, prioritize the Glass Garden, a celebrated new restaurant at the castle-like Schloss Mönchstein hotel. Its dome-shaped, fully windowed dining room faces an idyllic garden—a source of inspiration for the kitchen’s nouveau Austrian dishes.
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