The Amana Colonies are an enclave of villages in east central Iowa, about 20 miles west of Iowa City (see map). Settled in 1854 by a group of German Pietiets, what was once a radical off-shoot of the Lutheran Church in Germany, the 7 villages were a self-sufficient entity for nearly 80 years. When the villagers suffered a number of financial setbacks during the height of the Great Depression, they formed a communal joint-stock business, the Amana Society. These businesses primarily consisted of a bakery, the famous Amana Woolen Mill, a butcher/smokehouse and other small ventures. Of course, the biggest business to come out of the Amana Society was Amana Refrigeration, the company that produced the first counter top microwave ovens in the mid-60's.
The villagers in the Amana Colonies also shared their meals in a communal setting for years and years. Meals were strict - men sat at one table, women and children at another. Only 15 minutes was allotted for meals and conversation was strictly forbidden during the meal. When the communes were disbanded, villagers had their own kitchens in their houses. However, after a number of the large halls that were used for dinners became restaurants serving authentic German foods for tourists that came to see the heritage of the Amana Colonies starting in the 1950's.
A number of authentic German-style family restaurants proliferated the Amana Colonies, but over the years through attrition the number has dropped. Today in Amana, the main village of the Amana Colonies, there are only three restaurants left. It has been quite some time since we'd been to the Amana's for a meal and Cindy and I took the time one beautiful late fall day to make the 90 minute trip west to have dinner. Of all the restaurants that I'd eaten at over the years in Amana, the only one that I had never stepped foot in was The Ronneburg. We decided to eat there that particular evening.
The name "Ronneburg" is taken from a famous medieval castle in Germany which sheltered ancestors of the Amana Colonies before their persecution over 200 years ago. The original owners of the restaurant, Don and Elsie Oehler, opened the Ronneburg in 1950 in the building in which Elsie's grandmother was the "kitchen boss" during the communal days of the Amana Colonies. Elsie's family lived in the building that featured a living area, the village kitchen and dining hall. Using authentic German recipes handed down from her grandmother, Elsie Oehler became one of the more famous and beloved cooks within the Amana Colonies.
Current owners Yana and David Cutler continue the Ronneburg tradition of German food served family style. We also found out that the Cutler's recently bought the Brick Haus, a longtime favorite of Cindy and mine that had closed up a few years ago. The Cutlers plan on reopening the traditional German restaurant that was originally opened in 1982 by Walt Scheurer, who got his start at the venerable Colony Inn in Amana. The Cutlers also recently bought the old Zuber's Dugout Restaurant - owned for years by Amana-area native Bill Zuber who had a long career in Major League Baseball - and turned it into a 15-room inn called Zuber's Homestead Hotel in nearby Homestead, IA.
The one thing about the restaurants in the Amana Colonies is that they have pretty limited hours. If you're thinking of getting dinner, you need to go early. They're open only until 7:30 p.m. through the week, 8:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 7:00 p.m. on Sunday. We had walked the nearly deserted streets of Amana late in the day before we decided upon the Ronneburg for dinner (see map). Cindy remarked that she couldn't remember a time when she saw the village so quiet late afternoon/early evening on a Saturday. On the weekends, the Amana Colonies are usually teeming with cars and pedestrians. It doesn't seem to be that way any longer.
We went into the Ronneburg around 6 p.m. that evening and were seated in one of the three main dining rooms on the main floor (below left). There's a bar area toward the back of the restaurant and Cindy said that she remembered a bar/banquet area upstairs, something that was confirmed by our very friendly waitress.
The three dining rooms on the main floor all have a rustic feel to them. Antique knick-knacks and old world paintings adorn the bright white walls. Wooden-beamed ceilings helped give the rooms a cozy country flavor. Since there weren't a lot of people there - even for a Saturday night - most of the diners were sequestered in the room closest to the bar. This room, we were told, was an addition to the original dining hall.
We took a look through the menu at the Ronneburg and in addition to traditional German favorites, they also feature steaks, pork chops, ham steaks, fresh water fish, broasted chicken and a handful of sandwiches. The reuben sounded especially delicious, but I wasn't interested in just getting a sandwich.
The main entrees at the Ronneburg are served either ala carte or family style. Family style gets you sides of Amana-style cottage cheese (basically cottage cheese with chives), cole slaw, beets, the veggie of the day, pan fried potatoes, sauerkraut, gravy and bread. As long as you want to keep eating the sides, they'll keep bringing refills.
The first thing we had to do was get an appetizer order of the famous Amana pickled ham. This, to me, is the holy grail of the food at any Amana restaurant. Amana pickled ham is just to die for. Ever since I first came to the Amana Colonies in the early 80's with my old college roommate, Billy Wilson, and his parents who lived not far from the Amana's, Amana pickled ham has been a "must have" during each of my subsequent visits. Thankfully, a number of shops near the Amana Colonies - including the Colony Point Deli (see my entry on the Colony Point Deli here) - sell jars of the pickled ham.
And thanks to a place mat at the Ronneburg, they had the recipe for Amana pickled ham on one of the placemats on our table. It's incredibly and almost stupidly easy -
1 lb. Amana smoked ham - cubed
1 small white onion - chopped into half rings
1 1/2 cup water
1 cup white vinegar
black pepper to taste
Add all the ingredients and mix well. Place in jar and store in refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours before serving.
And the stuff will keep in the fridge for up to three weeks. But believe me, it won't last that long because it is so freaking good!
While we were waiting on the ham, we decided on our main entrees. Amana smoked pork chops are wonderful and they had two pork chops and served with apples. Oooo... I'm not big on apples. I suppose I could've asked them without the apples. The German specialties included sauerbraten, weiner schnitzel, jager schnitzel, chicken schnitzel and Bavarian chicken - boneless chicken breasts with shaved Amana ham and melted Swiss cheese. We didn't want to get the same thing - just so we could share - so I got the sauerbraten with potato dumplings. Cindy got the weiner schnitzel with spaetzle.
Even after the pickled ham, beets, some of the cottage cheese and cole slaw that was brought out before our main entrees made it to the table, when the food showed up along with the rest of the sides we were ready. Cindy's weiner schnitzel (above left) had a light, peppery breading over the two pretty good sized slices of veal. I was a little taken aback about the size of my portion of the sauerbraten (above right). I thought it should have been a little bigger, but with all the other sides we got along with the family style servings, it turned out the sauerbraten she brought out was more than enough.
I love sauerbraten and the one at the Ronneburg was very good. The creamy brown gravy had a nice peppery taste to it and the beef was so tender that it was easily cut with a fork. Dipping the potato dumplings in the sauerbraten gravy was a nice addition to the meal.
Cindy gave me a bite - actually about three bites - of her weiner schnitzel. It was fabulous. The veal was tender and the breading wasn't overpowering. With a little lemon juice over the weiner schnitzel, it was a zippy taste on the tongue.
This meal, well, we went overboard on the consumption. Everything was so good, so fresh and so - well, German. Old world German. When our waitress came back and asked if we wanted a slice of pie or a Black Forest brownie for dessert, Cindy asked her for the list of pies they had that day. I said, "Nooo! Cindy, I've had enough! There's no way I can eat another bite." The waitress suggested we take something home and again I said, "Nooooo!"
For my first visit at the Ronneburg, I came away very impressed. It's difficult to decide which of the Amana restaurants are the best. I know a lot of the locals have their favorites and it's usually based upon who works (or worked) where, which restaurant is falling or rising in vogue, or what happened during a recent visit. But for my money, it's tough to beat the Ronneburg. I'm still amazed that I'd never eaten there before this visit.