The Unterwirt Sisters
Sabrina, Katrin and Maria Steindl run the Unterwirt in Ebbs. We sat down with the three sisters to talk service, servants and striking the balance between authentic hospitality and award-winning food.
There are plenty of places, especially here in Tirol, with a long and proud history. If you travel the region you will come across farmsteads 200, 300, 400 years old. Few, however, can claim to have quite as much history as the Unterwirt in Ebbs. Documents reveal that this building has stood here since the early 15th century. To put that into context, Christoph Columbus had not yet set off on his world-changing journey to America in 1490! It boggles the mind. And yet, far from being a dusty old place stuck in its ways, the Unterwirt is one of the most refreshing and revolutionary places in Tirol – and all thanks to three sisters.
Never just a business – always a home
There is an almost electric energy in the air as Sabrina, Katrin and Maria Steindl settle down to talk to me. After growing up together, the three had originally gone their separate ways with different jobs and different hopes for the future. When their parents announced that they would be retiring, the question quickly arose about what would happen to the Unterwirt, the restaurant and guesthouse they had run for so many years. "Family is very important to all of us. The Unterwirt was never just a business – it was also our home. We grew up here together. It was here that we formed the close bond we still have today. It was this idea of working together as a family, as a team, which eventually convinced us to come back and take over the running of the Unterwirt. Together."
Katrin Steindl in the garden. © Tirol Werbung / Nicolas Hafele
Maria Steindl collects ingredients from their own cultivation. © Tirol Werbung / Nicolas Hafele
Sabrina Steindl in the wine cellar of the Unterwirt. © Tirol Werbung / Nicolas Hafele
The three sisters like to call the Unterwirt their "little gourmet hotel". And that's a pretty good description, to be honest. The restaurant was recently awarded two Toques by renowned fine dining guide Gault&Millau for its mix of Austrian classics and contemporary cuisine. Yet, despite this, it is just as welcoming to groups of tired and hungry hikers as it is to the fine wedding guests who like to come from nearby Munich.
Eat, drink and be merry
The location of the Unterwirt is straight out of a picture postcard, framed against the backdrop of the Zahmer Kaiser Mountains. It is here, in one of Tirol's most beautiful regions, that the three sisters have committed their time and effort to establishing the Unterwirt as a place of fine dining, fine service and, most importantly, a genuinely warm welcome. In summer the lush meadows are resplendent with flowers and herbs, while in winter the landscape is transformed into an almost-too-perfect wonderland. In charge of the kitchen is Christian Ranacher, a creative head chef who dares to try new things while at the same time cooking favourites such as Schnitzel to perfection.
Relaxing at the Unterwirt. © Tirol Werbung / Nicolas Hafele
Summertime and the living is easy. © Tirol Werbung / Nicolas Hafele
Most food served at the Unterwirt is made from organic produce sourced from the region. © Tirol Werbung / Nicolas Hafele
Seasonal produce is sourced from local farmers, with particular attention paid to the Slow Food philosophy which originated decades ago in Italy and preaches quality above quantity. In charge of service is Herr Franz, who greets diners with a friendly smile and ensures everything runs like clockwork. One of the things Katrin is most proud of is the transformation which can often be observed over the course of an evening. Diners will arrive suited and booted. By the time dessert arrives they have taken off their ties, rolled up their sleeves and can often be found relaxing in one of the hammocks in the garden, she explains with a smile.
Head chef Christian Ranacher turns organic produce into mouth-watering creations. © Tirol Werbung / Nicolas Hafele
The wood-panelled dining room provides a cosy setting to enjoy the fine food on offer at the Unterwirt. © Tirol Werbung / Nicolas Hafele
"It's time to cast off this old-fashioned image of ladies in Dirndls serving the same food every day, year in year out, with the same permanent smile. Forget it! Those times are over. That's not what running a restaurant is about for me. And, to be honest, that's not the kind of place I want to go for a meal. Let's just all relax a bit and have a good time!"
Hosts, not servants. © Tirol Werbung / Nicolas Hafele
A major part of the philosophy at the Unterwirt is breaking down the old power hierarchy which has dominated for centuries. Guests are welcomed with a warm smile, but that doesn't mean they can ask for anything and everything. The relationship between diners and staff is more equal than elsewhere. And yes, sometimes that means customers don't always get precisely what they want when they want it.
"We see ourselves as partners, as service providers – but not as servants," explains Sabrina. "Work and leisure are two separate things for us. When guests come here they should know that they are coming into our home. We are their hosts, not their slaves."
The story of the Wiener Schnitzel
The three sisters admit that there have been a few situations where this has led to misunderstandings between them and their guests. However, Maria, Sabrina and Katrin are grateful to their parents, Edmund and Anni Steindl, for following a similar approach long before them. "The way our parents ran the Unterwirt and interacted with diners is very much in line with the way we want to. They established the restaurant's reputation. All we have to do is adapt a few things to our own style and look to the future."
As I prepare to head off, I am offered a Wiener Schnitzel – a classic dish which comes with its own unique story here at the Unterwirt. After years of making literally hundreds of Schnitzels a day, Edmund Stainer one day declared: "I've had enough!". He packed his things and, together with his wife Anni, headed off into the great wide world to embark on a culinary journey around Europe. When he returned to the Unterwirt in 1991 he was determined to transform it into a fine-dining location – and did just that.
One day Edmund Steindl had had enough of making Wiener Schnitzel - and decided to transform the Unterwirt into a fine-dining location. © Tirol Werbung / Nicolas Hafele
"Despite all the changes over the years and decades, Wiener Schnitzel is still the signature dish here at the Unterwirt – and that's the way we like it," says Katrin. "It's probably because it's the best Wiener Schnitzel you will find anywhere," adds Maria with a smile.
Wiener Schnitzel is still one of the signature dishes at the Unterwirt. © Tirol Werbung / Nicolas Hafele