BRATTLEBORO—On May 30, Dalem’s Chalet celebrates its 50th anniversary with a special dinner featuring European continental cuisine.
The Alpine-styled restaurant, banquet hall, and inn, is tucked among the wooded hills of West Brattleboro, just behind the First Congregational Church. Ursula Dalem, the establishment’s proprietor, said she has lived in Brattleboro for 58 years.
What brought Dalem — born Ursula Golda — from her childhood home in eastern Germany to southeastern Vermont was the family of Oskar Dalem, her future husband. They eventually settled in West Brattleboro.
She said her parents and the Dalem family knew each other from Katowice. The now-Polish city was part of Germany when she was born, and then came under Poland’s control after World War I under the Treaty of Versailles. It was retaken by the Germans at the start of World War II.
Dalem described the sequence of events the brought her from Katowice to Vermont in an article in the German newspaper Die Welt on Jan. 24, 2012.
In January, 1945, World War II was ending, and Katowice was in chaos.
“We were refugees fleeing from the Russians,” Dalem told the The Commons. “Thousands and thousands of refugees were trying to get away from the advancing Russian army.”
The last train out was leaving with only women and children, and she had a half-hour to pack. She and her mother fled, carrying the one trunk they were able to fill with contents from their home, but they had to leave Dalem’s father, not knowing when they would see him again.
They boarded the train heading west, but it stopped. So, the mother and daughter walked through the wintery German countryside with their one trunk, catching a ride on a horse-drawn carriage when possible. They slept on a cold stone floor in a church.
“We lived on the second floor of a barn for one year,” Dalem said.
By June, “we ended up in Bavaria,” Dalem told The Commons. The war had ended the month before with Germany’s surrender to the Allies.
Dalem’s mother died the following year, and her father came to raise her. He had avoided combat in World War II because of an injury sustained during World War I.
Coming to America
Dalem lived in postwar West Germany in the cities of Tannhausen and Frankfurt, working as a secretary until the 1950s.
In the middle of the decade, when she was 30 years old, she decided to emigrate to America.
“Oskar’s father and mother were corresponding with my mother and father,” Dalem said. “When Oskar’s father died, he took over the correspondence. When my mother died,” she continued writing to Oskar.
“He said to me, ‘Why don’t you come over and look at it?’” Dalem said, of the property he had purchased in West Brattleboro, where the chalet currently stands.
“I wanted me to visit, [Oskar] wanted me to visit,” Dalem said, adding, “and I am still visiting."
“Oskar picked me up in New York in 1956,” Dalem said. She sailed on the S.S. America from Bremerhaven via Southampton, England, to New York City. As the Die Welt article reported, Oskar was waiting for her on the quay with a bouquet of flowers.
In 1948, Oskar started a turkey farm on the land where the chalet now stands, Dalem said.
“I came along, and I didn’t get along with the turkeys,” she said, but, “I delivered turkeys to Lenox, Boston, to Dartmouth. Everywhere.” Dalem described the vehicle: a Volkswagen van with a stick-shift. She sarcastically noted, “That was such a pleasure.”
It took a few years, but Dalem convinced Oskar to change careers.
“Oskar was a European-trained master chef,” she said. “He worked in restaurants at the Ritz-Carlton, the Blackstone in Chicago, all these big places,” she said.
“I thought, ‘He’s so talented, he’s wasting his talents on turkeys,’” she said.
The couple wanted to build “just a banquet hall,” Dalem said, and enlisted an architect friend to help them design the building.
“The town said, ‘no,’” to the banquet hall idea, Dalem said, adding the town insisted ‘you have to have a restaurant.’ So, we built the second floor. Then the town said, ‘in this zoning, you can’t have a banquet restaurant without an inn.’"
“We started out with one floor, and ended up with three,” she said.
For anyone raised reading Grimms’ Fairy Tales, walking into Dalem’s Chalet is like waking up from a childhood dream.
Dark wooden beams buttress white stucco walls.
Abundant flowers sprout from planters; others are hand-painted onto colorful credenzas, tables, benches, and chairs.
Figurines of milk-maids and shepherd boys gaze at decorative Bavarian plates.
One almost expects friendly woodland creatures to beckon guests in.
The dining room, with its low ceiling, features dramatic lighting at night. By day, it is lit by large windows lining three walls. On the other side are hills, rolling lawns, tall trees, and two ponds. Upstairs, the banquet hall has an indoor-outdoor fireplace and a high, peaked ceiling of dark wood.
“Oskar built all the tables in the dining room” using wood from the cherry trees on the property, Dalem said.
The bar is made of Vermont marble from Proctor, and Dalem said Oskar made that, too. The stairs leading from the parking lot to the front desk and the restaurant, and the stairs going from the restaurant to the third-floor banquet hall, have the same story.
The rough-hewn beams crossing the ceiling and acting as columns are from old tobacco barns near Greenfield, Mass., she said.
From one column hangs a petite black velvet garment, finely embroidered with small, colorful flowers. “This is Blanche Moyse’s dirndl from her first recital in Vienna,” Dalem said.
Once the kitchen opened with Oskar at the helm, he “pushed me out into the dining room,” Dalem said, adding, “Also, at the desk at the inn. I did all that.”
“I still do it,” she said.
Ursula Dalem turned 88 this year.
Going it alone
Oskar died in 1979, leaving Ursula Dalem to run the operation herself. Their son, Oscar, used to bus tables and was a server, but “he lives in Jericho now,” Dalem said, noting, “he’s the computer whiz” behind Dalem’s Chalet’s website.
Ian Diamondstone has worked for Dalem for “about 30 years” doing “whatever Mrs. Dalem tells me,” he said.
Diamondstone said he began his career at Dalem’s as a busboy during foliage season in the early 1980s.
“I would hide in the corner doing dishes,” he said, and Dalem would yell at him, “Get outta there! Get in the dining room and start pouring water” for the guests.
He pointed out to a visitor the window treatments in the dining room, nodding toward Ursula Dalem while he asked, “Who made the curtains?"
Dalem slyly smiled and said, “So what?"
Diamondstone replied, “It’s what makes this place special!”
When asked how she was able to find chefs well-versed in German cooking in West Brattleboro, she answered, “Luck.”
She also learned a lot about cooking from Oskar, Diamondstone said.
Dalem noted the restaurant used to be open every day, but “at the moment we are not open regular hours. We are shooting for June,” she said in a follow-up email to The Commons. The Chalet still hosts yearly special events, such as Oktoberfest, which they started offering about 30 years ago.
Dalem said they bring in two accordionists, and serve a big buffet of Bavarian specialties, including sauerbraten, bratwurst, schnitzel, apple strudel, “and everything,” she added.
But, Dalem said she closes the restaurant in the winter.
“The taste of the people in regard to food has changed,” Dalem said, adding, “I’m thinking of Putney Road with the fast food services."
“Chains are a pain-in-the-butt,” Dalem said, noting the “convenience” of nationally-known hotels, and the development of Putney Road, has put a dent in Dalem’s business, and changed the culture. Visitors “get off at Exit 3, they have all the choices there,” she said.
“I wouldn’t prefer to stay in a chain,” Dalem said, adding, “from one to next you have the same beds, lamps, pictures. It’s all the same."
Dalem pointed out the furniture in the dining room, some of which she painted herself, and others painted by a former chef, to fit in with the Bavarian theme. As she did, she mentioned “character and style” being two features of Dalem’s Chalet one could not find in a chain hotel restaurant.
She reminisced about places like the Putney Inn and the Four Columns Inn. “They all had to give up because of chains and condos,” Dalem said.
“We used to have skiers. Now they stay at ski areas because it’s convenient,” she said. “They jump from the bed into boots and they are right there” at the ski hill, she said.
In addition to hosting “families with kids” skiing at the former Hogback Mountain and Maple Valley, Dalem recounted more well-known guests.
“Linda Ronstadt stayed here,” Dalem said. “We hosted a lot of musicians from the Marlboro Music Festival,” she said, naming the Serkin and Moyse families as friends and frequent guests. “One Rockefeller, and Abe Fortas,” the former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, “world-class skiers from Harris Hill,” she added. Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich also stayed at Dalem’s Chalet, she said.
Dalem said juries serving in the nearby federal courthouse used to stay at the Chalet when they were sequestered because the inn is secluded. Diamondstone said, “I was instructed to not talk to them about the news when I served them dinner."
Diamondstone said the Brattleboro area used to have quite a number of German immigrant families, some of whom moved here because of the Estey Organ Factory. He mentioned the late Georg and Hanne Steinmeyer, and the Kirchheimers. They loved coming to the Chalet for “a taste of Germany,” he said.
“I had my wedding dinner here,” Diamondstone said.
“We have many weddings,” Dalem said. Then the couple “comes back, and they bring me the kids,” she said.