When it comes to Christmas in New York, the towering tree at Rockefeller Center and the festive window displays at Macy’s remain evergreen attractions, but many looking to soak up the holiday spirit also make their way to Rolf’s, a German restaurant on the corner of East 22nd Street and Third Avenue in the Gramercy neighborhood of Manhattan. The restaurant opened in 1968, but since the early 1980s has been amassing over-the-top Christmas decorations that would make Clark Griswold throw in the towel. Inside, the snug restaurant and bar is transformed seasonally into a Bavarian winter wonderland, draped beneath a canopy of twinkling lights, bouquets and bundles of ornaments of every size and color, ornate wreaths and strands of garland and tinsel. Over 800 Victorian-style dolls are peppered throughout, peeking out and casting their unblinking gaze on patrons alongside various Santa figurines and vintage sleds mounted on the walls.
This festive display is unveiled in October and remains through March, but if you’re thinking about stopping by in December, be prepared to wait. Reservations are all booked up by early October, and the walk-in line for the bar extends down the block. Whether you have reservations or are rolling standby, you’ll likely encounter Justin (who preferred not to use his last time), the 34-year-old doorman from Brooklyn who works from November through early January at what he calls “the smallest and busiest bar and restaurant in Gramercy.”
Aside from his eggplant-colored Nautica slip-on sneakers, he’s dressed entirely in black: jeans, a Rolf’s-branded sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his head, and an added layer of warmth courtesy of a hooded Carhartt quilted jacket. A chunky pair of wireless headphones is worn like a neck pillow and his dark beard has a slight dusting of gray at the chin. The Santa’s-roadie vibe is softened by his relatively quiet, even-toned manner of speaking and seemingly bottomless level of patience while checking IDs and vaccination cards and answering endless questions: Can I make a reservation? How long will it take to get in? Can I just pop in to take a photo? Can I see if my friends are inside? Can I use the bathroom? When one woman, debating whether to join the long line, asks if it’s worth it, Justin smiles and says, “That’s subjective, right? I can’t make you think it’s worth it if it’s not.”
On a chilly Friday in December, Justin paced the standby line announcing the rules of the road. He doesn’t want anyone to be surprised, especially after waiting for so long. “I have a lot of people who bring their children without a reservation, without knowing what’s up, and waiting in this line for more than an hour,” he says. “I make announcements every hour just to make sure people know kids are not allowed in the bar without a res. A res guarantees you a table, but it’s standing room only inside and there’s no food service at the bar. You would think people would be more tolerant around the holidays, more easygoing. Forget it, man.”
The doors open at noon. Once those with reservations are seated, he turns his attention to the line that snakes down 22nd Street and bellows, “OK, I’m opening the bar. Let’s streamline this process. Here we go…”
What is your role here at Rolf’s?
Doorman. Security. Wrangler of line. Really, I’m a living sign for Rolf’s and a bearer of bad news about reservations and Christmas.
How did you get into this line of work?
I was working at a bar in the Lower East Side and one of the guys who does our extermination, he grew up in South Brooklyn, so we started relating and he told me about an opening here at Rolf’s. This will be my third year here. This is seasonal, but I do this constantly. I worked at Warsaw. I cut my teeth over at Hammerstein. I used to work with Strike Force. I’ve been doing this job a long time. Officially, since I was 18. Around age 14 I started watching shit for bands at shows. They’d be like, “Yo, watch our stuff, man.” I’ve been this size since I’m 10 years old.
What are you, like 6’2”?
I like to say 6’4”.
What’s the average wait time in the line this time of year?
Oh, man. That depends. This time of year, about an hour and a half.
What’s the art of giving bad news to people over and over all day?
I try not to be short or crass with anybody. But to be honest, some people can be annoying as fuck. There’s constantly people who come up and try some real circular reasoning just to try to get me to say yes to whatever they got. And I’m like, dude, I’m just here to tell you what you can and can’t do in the moment. I’m not the controller of your destiny, you know? A lot of people are like, “I tried to make reservations and I couldn’t.” Well, desirability isn’t a requisite for the truth, bro. I don’t know what to tell you. You can’t come here having done no research.
What qualities make you good at what you do here? Is it your size? Your patience?
I’ve been told all that. [Laughs.] But I gotta be honest, a lot of people that do this kind of job, you get a lot of derelicts—people who want the action and the fun and all that stuff. I hate that. I’m not a violent guy at all. Granted, if things pop off, I’m gonna do what I do. But that’s not what I go into work for. I would rather have somebody jaw at me for hours than, you know, physically get into it.
Do people try to bribe you to get in?
I get, “Oh, I’ll give you $500 for skipping the line, blah, blah, blah.” But get this, they’ll pull out the money in front of everyone here. So now I’m like, “Yo, you didn’t even give me the opportunity to be unscrupulous.” [Laughs.]
Is being outside in the elements a tough part of the job?
I duck in and out of the bar all the time. That helps. But mainly what keeps me on the bag, doing it as long as I have, is the money at the end. Plus, my boss, he knows how I come at people and the same thing with our hosting staff. Our initial instinct is to try to be accommodating, even if it’s with disappointing news. I’m not going to call anyone names or get nasty if I don’t get that. But a lot of people, they can do that to us. This isn’t McDonald’s or Starbucks, motherfucker. It’s a mom and pop.
Do you have any after-work rituals?
I go home and sleep.
What do you like to drink when you’re not on the job?
Jameson, double. And give me Budweiser, man.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I go to a lot of shows. I used to go to L’Amour in Brooklyn back in the day, but then they closed. That was sweet because it was the only venue I was able to walk to. My mom used to go there, too. She saw one of Iron Maiden’s first performances in America there. Same thing with Motörhead and their show in South Brooklyn.
Do you have to psych yourself up for SantaCon?
I printed up a stack of anti-SantaCon flyers so people know not to even think about trying to come here. Because we’re so decorated, we’re kind of a big target when they walk by. I’ll have about four guys [working] out here. Someone controlling the line, someone across the street watching the line, somebody to make sure they don’t mess with the liquor store next door and trolling our kitchen entrance in the back to make sure no one’s trying to get in through there.
Is Christmas your favorite holiday?
Christmas is one of them. I like Christmas a lot. The best holiday for me, speaking as a big guy, is Thanksgiving, man. You make food and eat and chill all day.
Do you have a favorite Christmas song?
Nah… Wait, yes, I do! It’s by King Diamond: “No Presents for Christmas.”
Favorite Christmas movie or holiday special?
All these fucks say, “Die Hard is my favorite Christmas movie.” Get fucked! I’m gonna go with a classic. I always like the first two Home Alone movies. I like the second one a little more because of all the New York locations, to see how accurate it is. I’ll be like, come on, they don’t have a pool at The Plaza.
What are you doing for Christmas?
We’re closed Christmas and get a half-day on Christmas Eve. I’m going to just chill and see family and watch March of the Wooden Soldiers.