Winter Park mainstay reopens under original owners
Grand County, Colo
In the late 1960s, a little village called Hideaway Park tucked against the western slope was being transformed European alpine village. New buildings were going up in the architectural style of the high Alps. Western European immigrants flocked to the area, drawn by the feel of home. Gift shops, restaurants, hotels and ski shops were being opened by immigrants from Austria, Germany, Northern Italy and Switzerland.
In just a few decades, what had been a cluster of cabins with a few outposts by the river at the base of Ski Idlewild was growing into a thriving alpine ski town with businesses such as the Swiss Chalet, the Yodel Inn, the Olympia, Hi Country Haus and Hernandos.
In 1963, a young couple from the Rhine Valley in Germany came to Colorado by way of Canada and fell in love with Hideaway Park for the same reason as their predecessors; it reminded them of home.
Hans and Hanne Eichler went on to become mainstays in the town. And nearly 40 years later, they are still it at it. This week they have reopened their beloved restaurant and hotel Gasthaus Eichler with its authentic German fare and “willkommen” atmosphere.
“We are going back to the basics,” said Hanne, who learned the restaurant’s traditional recipes from her mother as a child.
After the war, her mother had to go to work, Hanne said, and she – like most young girls at the time, was responsible for the cooking at home.
“It’s what we learned as girls,” she said. “We learned how to cook. That’s just how it was.”
Hanne married Hans when she was only 19 years old and months later they headed to North America in search of a better life.
“Things were difficult after the war,” Hanne said.
The young couple knew they wanted to live in the United States and, at the time, moving to Canada was their best chance of ultimately being allowed into the country.
Their first vacation to the United States in 1963 brought them to Hideaway Park, and there they stayed, drawn by the feel of home.
Hans was a stone mason and quickly found work building foundations and fireplaces at Hideaway Village, which was under construction at the time.
In 1965, the couple took over management of the Village Inn (the current site of Deno’s), which they ran until it was bought by Darvin and Helen Eherenman in 1967 and turned into The Swiss House of Fondue and Coachman Tavern.
From 1977-1981, they owned a gift shop called Plaza Gifts in Winter Park Plaza, near the current Hideaway Park. There they sold everything from macrame plant hangers, which were very popular at the time, and skiing owl figurines made by an artist in Hot Sulphur Springs, to German dinnerware and crystal.
In 1980, they opened their own restaurant Gasthaus Eichler in the current location of Ullr’s (formerly Buckets) next to the movie theater.
For a while, the restaurant was only enough to support the family in the winter when the skiers were in town. Eventually, however, Hans had to give up his stone mason work to help run the front of restaurant full time.
As the Gasthaus grew in popularity so did the pots in the kitchen, Hanne said, raising her hands to the height of a giant industrial soup pot.
“When I couldn’t lift the pots anymore, I told Hans that he had to learn to cook,” she said.
Growing up in Germany in the 1940s, Hans had never spent a day in the kitchen.
“I never cooked anything before” he said. (And to this day he is not allowed in Hanne’s kitchen at home, she added).
But, he stepped into his new role at the restaurant and learned the ropes, keeping true to Hanne’s mother’s and grandmother’s recipes. Hanne, meanwhile, took over the bar.
In 1987, they purchased a prime piece of property on Vasquez Creek and built the current Gasthaus Eichler building with 15 hotel rooms, a large bar, ski shop and restaurant.
On weekends in the late 80s and 90s, the line for dinner would fill the lobby, Hanne said. It was popular with locals and visitors alike.
The Eichlers raised three children, one of whom raced with the U.S. Ski Team. Another still lives in the county. And, when the time came to retire, the couple leased out the restaurant and the ski shop and hit the road in their motor home.
For nearly 7 years they traveled around the country, visiting every state, Hanne said.
“We’ve made such great friends,” she added. “We had our health. We did it at the right time.”
Then, last year, when the people who had leased the restaurant from them left, the Eichlers faced a difficult decision. They did not want to let the restaurant sit empty and unused. Yet, returning to run the restaurant full time in their 70s was a daunting idea.
“We thought about it for about 30 seconds,” Hanne said. “But, this is our livelihood. We built this restaurant. It is everything to us.”
Now, 30 years after first opening the Gasthaus, the Eichlers have returned with their original menu and legendary service.
Everything in the restaurant is still made by hand. Their potato pancakes, which could be bought frozen from Shamrock Foods these days, Hanne said, are crafted from scratch with real potatoes. The spätzle is handmade with a machine in the kitchen. Other popular items on the menu include wienerschnitzel, jägerschitzel and säuerbraten.
“Nothing is watered down,” Hanne said.
German food is not just bratwurst and saurkraut, she said. Although there is that too – all the Eichler’s brats, available in both veal and pork, come from a Swiss butcher in Denver.
For dessert they offer Black Forest cake, chocolate mouse torte and apple strudel, all made from scratch. They’ve added chocolate and cheese fondue, and three German beers are available on tap.
Gasthaus Eichler also has 15 hotel rooms that they updated this winter with new carpet, tile, paint, coffee makers, flatscreen t.v.’s and bedding.
“It’s back to what it was,” Hanne said.
Overnight guests will be treated to the Eichler’s complimentary homemade breakfast and an apres ski happy hour.
In the summer they have an outdoor patio on the creek’s edge surrounded by potted flowers and space heaters.
The Eichler’s are hopeful that business will pick back up and will soon be at least as good as it was before.
“When we were here before there weren’t all these condos around us,” Hanne said. “And the park right across the street is new. There weren’t even sidewalks here before. My kids used to ride their tricycles on the highway out there in the summer and didn’t get hit.”
Most of those people who built their businesses alongside the Eichlers have left. Winter Park has changed. The European alpine flair that marked the town’s early years is being overwhelmed by more modern architectural style. But, people still have a taste for traditional Alpine food and good service.
“Yes, we do have hope,” Hanne said.
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