Restaurant wins historical "beauty contest"

The shingled façade underwent a total makeover

If walls could talk, the 450-year-old Urwaldhaus restaurant would have something to say about winning this year's top heritage prize in tourism.

This content was published on September 28, 2005 - 08:31

But since they cannot, swissinfo heard a few stories from admirers of the ancient building in eastern Switzerland.

"A beauty contest" is the analogy used by Peter Omachen, a monument conservator and head of the jury of the prestigious Swiss historic Hotel/Restaurant of the Year award.

"There are many beautiful women but we were not only looking for beauty among the contestants but charisma as well, and that's what this building has." (see video)

The Urwaldhaus sits on a hill in the middle of the bucolic Appenzell countryside in Rehetobel, not far from the city of St Gallen.

Extensive restoration and renovation work completed earlier this year reawakened the building, making it eligible for the prize.

Small details

It was not only the faithful restoration of the farmhouse, which has been run as a restaurant for the past 200 years, but the attention paid to the small historical details that convinced the jury.

Solid wooden shutters slide down over the windows, stubbornly set in motion by pulling on leather straps. A small foldaway bed is built into the cherry wood sideboard, and a candleholder swings out from the wall on a skinny mechanical arm.

The restorers also took great pains not to fill in the cracks between the massive wooden beams making up the walls and ensured that the floorboards would not lose their creak.

"What's noteworthy is the building's age," says Fredi Altheer, monument conservator for canton Appenzell Outer Rhodes. "And the restaurant looks more or less the same today as it did when it first opened."

A new era at the Urwaldhaus has been ushered in by Agi and Dieter Ukatz, who were chosen to run the establishment by the owner – a foundation set up in 2003 with the goal of raising the necessary funds for the comprehensive restoration.


"A newly-built house never tells you any stories," says Agi, a bubbling hostess with an irresistible eccentric flair.

"After we close up on Sunday, I sit in the dining room with my husband and look across at the picture of Frieda [legendary owner from 1927-1966] and ask her if she thinks we have done a good job. I believe she hears me."

The Ukatz family has put the accent on fine dining – the first time gourmet cuisine has been served at the restaurant in its long history.

After managing lakeside restaurants for years, Dieter has brought his fetish for fish and seafood to the rural Appenzell countryside, preparing mouth-watering smoked salmon and shrimp dishes in the small but state-of-the-art kitchen, the one area along with the bathrooms that has been modernised.

The family has moved into an apartment upstairs, sharing the level with a local gun club, which uses a side room for competitions.

This is a part of Appenzell where such clubs traditionally take aim indoors, shooting at targets placed at the other end of the room.

It is a custom the conservators thought was worth preserving, but out of respect for the new inhabitants, agreed to put up a wall to separate the room from the Ukatz apartment.

Still functional

"It's our aim to preserve old buildings but also to ensure they don't lose their functionality and that's why we allow certain renovations and alterations to be made," adds Altheer.

It's not always easy to live here because like any old house the dust gets everywhere," says daughter Stephanie. "But the building's history is alive – every time I go through the house, I think of all the people through the centuries who must have walked across the very same floorboards."

She thinks the Urwaldhaus has untapped potential, and as a student of tourism at a school in Lucerne, the younger Ukatz is conducting research into how to better market the heritage property.

"You have to do more than promote the food," she explains.


She says packages could combine dinner with snowshoeing and other outdoor activities to familiarise guests with the region, its traditions and history.

The respectful approach to the Urwaldhaus she shares with her parents has gone a long way to assuaging fears of many local inhabitants who feared the Ukatz family would lend their cosy watering hole too much of an urban touch.

Stephanie's mother says the locals did not approve of her appearance the first time they saw her. "As I usually do, I was wearing an elegant hat and had lots of make-up on," Agi Ukatz remembers.

"They were worried they would no longer feel welcome.

"And when I saw the men here for the first time, they were all in their undershirts," she laughs. "I thought I would have to go out and buy them all proper shirts!"

She says she has made them feel at home again, since they return regularly to play cards, sitting at their favourite table drinking wine and beer as they always have.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Rehetobel

Key facts

The Urwaldhaus in Appenzell has won the 2005 Historic Hotel/Restaurant of the Year prize.
It was built as a farmhouse in 1550, and has been a restaurant since 1805.
It underwent comprehensive restoration and renovation work last year.
The heritage prize is awarded by the Swiss branch of Icomos, the International Council on Monuments and Sites.
Last year's winner was the grand hotel Waldhaus in Sils Maria.

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