For 70 years, The Pfeifer House entertained guests with its Old European charm. Located on the western edge of Tahoe City, the Alpine chalet-like restaurant harkens back to the days when there were only a few eating establishments on the North Shore, like the old school eateries of Bacchi’s Inn, Swiss Lakewood, and River Ranch. But its history stretches back even farther to a time when it operated under different names and hosted local legends, as well as less above-board amusements such as gambling and prostitution.
While the restaurant closed almost four years ago and has been empty since, it is currently undergoing a massive renovation under new owners who plan to keep the Old World theme and cuisine.
The Lake Inn
The building that came before The Pfeifer House was originally slated to be a private residence in the 1920s. Sometime in the 1930s it became The Lake Inn, which included about six small cabins that doubled as a brothel, located up the hill from the restaurant. In the late 1930s, Nate Firpo from San Francisco purchased the business from the Carnells. His daughter was born on the kitchen table in a cottage on the hill in July 1943. People know her today as Stephanie Olivieri, owner of Cabona’s in Truckee since 1967.
Olivieri shares some memories of The Lake Inn as it was during World War II, when soldiers on leave would come up to Tahoe in the summer.
“The bar was very popular because we had liquor and gambling,” she recalled. “A lot of servicemen came from the narrow gauge train that stopped across the street, as well as a lot of young socialites from San Francisco. It was a wonderful gathering place for young people in the summer time.”
Olivieri remembers notable Tahoe characters of yore like Squaw Valley founder Alex Cushing and Bud Jones of the Squaw Valley Stables saddling up to the bar.
The Pfeifer House
By the 1950s the restaurant had changed hands again, this time coming under the ownership of Ric Giannini, who hired his cousin Lois Pfeifer to be the manager, giving the establishment its name that has lasted until today. The iteration of The Pfeifer House that most people remember came into being when Franz and Ute Fassbender, along with their partner Harry Obermuller, all from Germany, bought the restaurant in 1972.
The Pfeifer House served up traditional German and French food including different types of schnitzel, escargot, sauerbraten, potato pancakes, chateaubriand, and bratwurst.
“People loved certain food items and the atmosphere,” said Ute, who still lives in Tahoe City. “It was a nice, cozy, rustic indoor place which had beautiful wood carvings and old cuckoo clocks. It was a nice, warm place for people to meet.”
Ute, who worked as the hostess as well as the bookkeeper, has fond memories of her 48 years owning The Pfeifer House with her husband.
“I met the most wonderful people coming from San Jose, Walnut Creek, and San Francisco who came every year to spend vacations here,” she said. “They would come in at least three to four times a week with their families. Some of them still write me Christmas cards.”
Kim Kerrigan’s mother Carol Merryfield was a waitress at The Pfeifer House for 15 years starting in 1977. Kerrigan remembers when she was a child Ute would bring her into the kitchen and Franz would give her ice cream. When she became older, she worked there as a busser in the ’90s.
“It was probably one of the more fun restaurants I ever worked at,” Kerrigan said. “You had to dress up, wear a dirndl [a traditional dress worn in Bavaria, Austria, and some other German-speaking parts of the Alps. It’s the counterpart to lederhosen]. For me, it was a second home.”
According to Merryfield, Franz and Obermuller traded off every month doing the bartending and the cooking. She has menus signed by the many celebrities that frequented The Pfeifer House; among them singer Huey Lewis, Yankees manager Billy Martin, and actors Suzanne Somers, Leonard Nimoy, and Robin Williams.
After Franz passed away in 2012, the Fassbenders’ son Kirk took over the restaurant. (The Fassbenders bought out Obermuller in the late ’80s.) After 47 years in business, the Fassbenders were ready to retire, and the Pfeifer House closed in April 2019 when a couple was interested in purchasing it.
When chefs Allison and Mark Sullivan, who lived in San Francisco at the time, saw the for-sale sign on the Pfeifer House, they knew they had to buy it. Mark’s father, who had passed away the year before, used to love coming to the Pfeifer House. They knew it would be a fitting tribute to him.
Now living in Olympic Valley, the pair started a huge remodel on the building last spring. The restaurant was gutted, and they had to dig out the hillside in back to create more parking and add a massive retaining wall, all to bring it up to code. They expect construction to be completed in time for a New Year’s Eve party at the end of this year.
“The sentimental value of the restaurant has kept us engaged,” Allison said.
The new iteration of it will retain the Old Europe feel with cuisine from the Savoy, a region that encompasses the Alpine parts of France, Italy, and Switzerland, and thus the restaurant will be called the Savoie, the French name for that area.
“We loved the idea of a cozy, European mountain chalet that was already there, with the fireplace and all of the charm the Fassbenders built over the years,” said Allison. “We wanted to continue that but bring it into the 21st century.”
The Savoie will be a blend of fine and casual dining, with an expanded bar and private rooms with white table cloths. (Mark is a partner in the Bacchus Group that has 10 restaurants in the Bay Area, including Michelin-starred Spruce in San Francisco and the Village Pub in Woodside.) But if you’re a Pfeifer House fan, don’t worry – the Sullivans are keeping all the taxidermy, including the famous moose head, as well as the bar’s vaulted pine ceiling. (Olivieri thinks the ceiling and beams were original to the old Lake Inn.)
Most of all, the Sullivans are excited to contribute to a renaissance of Tahoe City.
“It’s why we moved here and loved the opportunity to do something like this. We hope it will last a long time and contribute something to Tahoe City like The Pfeifer House did for so many years,” Allison said.