You don’t have to travel abroad to find a taste of European cuisine. A trip down state Highway 186 in Altus wine country will lead you to the family-owned Wiederkehr Restaurant.
The Wiederkehr family has deep historical roots in the area, and have been in the wine business for generations. The restaurant today was once the original wine cellar built by Dennis Wiederkehr’s great-grandfather Johann Adreas Wiederkehr 137 years ago.
“My family came here from Switzerland in 1880 on their way to Argentina,” Dennis said. “The area reminded them of the foothills of the Alps. Subiaco, across the river, had Swiss monks and they would send letters back home to the different parishes. They let the rest of the family know that the land was very inexpensive, that the railroad was selling and families were able to buy for a really good price, so they decided to come here instead of Argentina.”
Wiederkehr Vineyards is the longest standing commercial vineyard east of the Rocky Mountains. Dennis explained that is due to his family’s opportunity to continue to make wine through the Prohibition in the 1930’s. “One of the things that helped my great-grandfather be in that position was having an Ecclesiastes permit with the St. Mary’s Catholic church,” Dennis said. “My family wasn’t going to charge the church for the wine, so it wasn’t a profit situation, it was given to the church. They had permits that kept from having their equipment removed or destroyed. By not having to do that, they were able to start right back up after the prohibition was lifted.”
Dennis added that the Wiederkehr Wine Cellars are number eight of the federal bonded wine cellars out of all the wineries in the United States.“Those numbers started after prohibition,” Dennis said. “My grandfather Herman Wiederkehr was issued the eighth permit.”
Where dining tables now stand, Dennis described how barrels were once stacked in parallel rows for aging before being sold to folks in the area. “They used steel hoops with leather straps and would put ramps down on the stairwell to roll the barrels up the steps to be put on the wagon headed for town to sell,” he said.
The idea for the restaurant came from Dennis’s uncle Al Wiederkehr, who studied commerce at the University of Notre Dame and then law school at the University of Arkansas. Later, Al would attend the University of California, Davis — the premiere wine school in the US. “Then after that he got a Fulbright sponsorship to go to Europe where he studied wine making,” Dennis said. “He lived in Bordeaux, France for a year and a half working in vineyards and wineries learning European wine making first hand. It made a big difference in his skills and abilities to go that extra step. So basically, the restaurant is his plans that were drawn on napkins somewhere in France.”
Wiederkehr Restaurant opened in 1967 with the first permit in Arkansas for beer and wine. “Uncle Al helped pass the legislation to serve beer and wine in restaurants as part of the meal,” Dennis added. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Wiederkehr Restaurant.
“I was 11 years old when it opened,” Dennis said laughing. “I had plenty of trouble to get into around here.”
Since its inception, the Wiederkehr Restaurant has been a family affair. “My grandmother worked in the restaurant and so did my uncles and aunts, Dennis said. “They would work over in the winery and then come over here in the evening to work here as well. My wife Charlotte has been working there for 43 years. Charlotte’s mom, my Aunt Dolores Wiederkehr, and two or three other ladies were the original staff that started working here in 1967.”
Back then Dennis said it was normal for the quaint dining space to have 300 patrons just for lunch. “The employees couldn’t come here to eat because it was so busy,” he said. “At that time there were no other restaurants that you could go to that served beer and wine with the meal, especially one with this kind of atmosphere.”
Upstairs is the original log cabin where his grandfather and father grew up. Later, a Victorian house was built around the log cabin. Eventually the house was torn down and the cabin was made into a gift shop. “My grandfather ran the gift shop here, selling the gifts and talking to people in German, French and Italian when they came in,” he said. “For us grandkids, if you had the chance to hangout with grandpa that was pretty cool.”
The Wiederkehr’s brought in Swiss chefs to develop the menu and train others in Swiss cuisine, which incorporates German, French, Austrian, and Italian dishes. Though the menu has changed through the years, some traditional favorites such as the Swiss onion soup and the quiche Lorraine have remained. There is no doubt that patrons don’t leave hungry and are always made to feel like a part of the family. “When people from Europe see our name, it’s a familiar thing because it means one who has returned,” he said. “It has a welcoming ring to it.”
Dining by candlelight makes for a charming setting with a loved one, so it’s no surprise that Wiederkehr Restaurant as been voted most romantic by the Arkansas Times. “You know, when you have the red table cloths and napkins out it is just a romantic setting,” Dennis said. “Sometimes we will get calls from people who want to set up special flowers and a bottle of champagne on the table because they plan on popping the question that night. You are in on scheming things sometimes. You go back 50 years and that’s quite a history of people coming through. It’s something special.”
When asked how he thought his family had left an impact on the community Dennis said, “We have always tried to stay proud of our heritage and proud of our community, and tried to do everything we can to make the place better than it was when we started. You go through peaks and valleys in business, in life and in generations. We have our share of work to do right now, but I think people think of us favorably. Fifty years is a lot of history and we’re still here giving it our all.”
Wiederkehr’s invite you to join them in celebrating the 54th Annual Weinfest on Saturday, October 21, 2017. No tickets required. Entertainment and admission to the grounds are free.