Though Werfen is little more than a one-street village, it has two excellent restaurants. For simpler fare, it's easy to explore the main street, Markt, and dive in to somewhere that takes your fancy there's a pizzeria and a couple of typical Gaststätten.
The real jewel here and, some would say, in the whole of Austria is this restaurant, serving up creative gastronomic transformations of standard Austrian dishes. Meals can be taken either in the shaded garden or in one of several connected interior spaces. Wherever you eat, you'll get attention to detail, top service (I lost count of the number of times I was asked if I was enjoying my meal), and best of all, fabulous food.
The brothers have traveled widely, and have absorbed ideas and cooking methods from all over the world, but particularly from Asia. They take their food very seriously, but are open to a bit of humor too: the brothers comically elongated chefs hats have inspired the logo for the restaurant.
Main courses cost $24-36, or you can opt for a multi-course menu (choice of several, for around $32-55, as I did. The brothers have a knack for combining unusual elements but making it work. Trout, for example, is not often presented as a strudel, but here it is. Served with a mushroom puree, it's both light and flavorsome. Stuffed duck is an array of taste experiences, with sweet, sour and savory ingredients complementing rather than battling. Desserts, like most of the other dishes, are a work of art on the plate. It seems a shame to tuck into them and spoil the symmetry, but I didn't spot anybody hanging back from doing so.
My one small criticism is that they can over-elaborate. The following morning, still replete from my rich and varied feast the night before, I requested a breakfast of scrambled eggs. I expected and wanted a simple dish to cleanse my palate, but what I got was another surfeit of strong flavors, my eggs arriving mixed with an overpowering accompaniment of chives, other pungent herbs and assorted greenery. I felt that was a bit much for breakfast. I suppose, though, that when you have so many good culinary ideas bubbling over in your minds and saucepans, it's difficult to reign in your creativity. Even for scrambled eggs.
Rating: Quality 18/20, Value 14/20
Restaurant Zur Stiege
This restaurant turns out prime Austrian and regional fare. The recipient of favorable reviews in the Austrian press, as well as a 16 out of 20 Gault Millau rating, you can expect to be served up nouvelle cuisine built upon traditional Austrian culinary values. The restaurant decor beneath the dark-wood ceiling includes a pleasing combination of green upholstery and salmon-colored curtains and tablecloths. At the center of the eating area is a drinks board groaning with an intoxicating array of spirits, including two dozen types of Schnapps. In the summer, you also have the option of eating in the pleasant garden.
Herbert Ranstl has been in charge in the kitchen since 1998. Set menus are in the $26-49 range, while a la carte main courses come in around the $11-23 mark. Cheaper options include standard fare such as scallop of pork or breast of chicken, while the higher prices include choice cuts such as rabbit fillet or saddle of lamb. Among the seafood choices was an adventurous presentation of pike-perch ($22). Served on a bed of potatoes and shallots, the fillet of pike-perch came with an exquisite crust combining eggplant and courgettes. Dessert was equally distinctive and equally good: white cheese soufflé with brandy sorbet and a pineapple-raspberry ragout ($8). The wine list includes some 150 varieties, strongly favoring Austrian and European growers and priced from $26 to $80 per bottle. Or, instead, an extensive exploration of the Schnapps table might just prove too tempting.
Contact: Restaurant zur Stiege, Markt 10, Werfen, A-5450, tel. +43/06468/5256-0, fax 5256-4.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 13/20
If you spend the day in Hallein, you can find a number of inexpensive restaurants at which to linger over lunch or dinner. Located in the town center on the western edge of the pedestrian zone, Gästehaus Unterholzerbräu is a place to visit for a smattering of local color and a plateful of reliable Austrian food. With its pale walls, dark wood furnishings and predominantly local clientèle, this is a typical no-frills Gasthof. The menu is not at all daring, offering the usual standbys of Schnitzel, grills, fish and Knudels, but the portions are well cooked and substantial. Main courses are in the range $6-15.
In the evenings, the restaurant takes on more of a bar atmosphere, with locals chatting, playing cards or sipping draught beer.
Contact: Oberhofgasse 4, 8010 Hallein, tel. +43/06245/81203, open 9am-midnight Tuesday-Saturday, 9am-2:30pm Sunday; closed Mondays
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 14/20
Prices current as of September 2003