Metzger's and the Old German: Tradition, family and renewal now unite them
Metzger’s will celebrate its 85th anniversary in Ann Arbor this year, months after the new incarnation of the Old German launches in the basement of its former home on West Washington Street.
For restaurateur Jon Carlson, creating a new version of the Old German makes sense: “It still means a lot to Ann Arborites,” he told reporter Lizzy Alfs for a story last week.
And the Metzger family sees it as a reminder of how much they’ve been a part of Ann Arbor, in their case since 1928 and lasting for four generations.
Like what’s planned for the Old German - which once was owned by a family member and provided a “friendly competition” - Metzger’s capitalizes on tradition in a new location.
Walter Metzger, the son of the founder, closed Metzger’s on East Washington Street in 1999.
But it reopened in 2001, finding a new space for the classic German restaurant, its steins and its stained glass in a small retail center at 305 N. Zeeb Road at the Interstate 94 exit.
The location offered patrons easy parking near the front door, something that they and the Metzger family craved after years of construction of a downtown parking deck stifled sales.
The Metzgers, as well as anyone in Ann Arbor, are in a position to tell the team behind the new Old German: You can make the most of tradition while adapting to a new location.
“It was something we had to do,” said owner John Metzger, grandson of the restaurant’s founder. “ We either had to close for good like the Old German did or move.”
John Metzger worked with his sister, Heidi, and Joe Neely to bring Metzger’s back to life on Zeeb Road. The menu features German recipes that the family served 50 years ago or longer.
There have been changes over the years, beyond the location. The menu now features salads, fish and chicken. And Walter’s grandson, Ryan Dunkelberg, is working in the kitchen. Dunkelberg is even making a new pork sausage that could gain prominence on the menu.
“We try to keep up with changing times,” John said.
But it’s that tradition that truly survives, thanks in part to so many links in the community.
Remember radio host Ted Heusel? His grandfather sponsored the restaurant founder’s immigration to Ann Arbor from Germany in 1923. Wilhelm Metzger then spent a year working at the University of Michigan with future Wolverine football coach Bennie Oosterbaan. An early Metzger’s employee was Herman Weber, who founded the family run Weber’s Inn on the city’s west side.
At one point, Metzger’s was on West Washington, where Wilhelm’s brother, Fritz, owned the Old German and a third brother, Gottfried, owned the nearby Deluxe Bakery.
The Metzgers know their history and they seem to relish telling their stories. Like John Metzger starting to wash glasses at the business - his first job there - when he was 10. And Walter, who saw Hollywood celebrities mingle with Ann Arbor natives at the bar in the 1950s and 1960s. Or the dark days of World War II, when an Ann Arbor News reporter helped debunk damaging rumors about the families’ ties to the German war machine.
And so many in Ann Arbor got to know Ruth Metzger, Walter’s late wife, who greeted customers for decades as the pair worked side-by-side during their 60-year marriage. After the downtown restaurant closed, Walter and Ruth ate frequently on Zeeb Road and Walter still comes in daily at the age of 86.
Even Walter’s favorite food hasn’t changed: Spatzen, with sauerbraten, schnitzel or sausage.
“Those are my three favorites,” Walter said. “And I love the German beer.”
“I think about it every day,” John said about the tradition behind his family’s business. “There’s such history. Dad and Mom, they put their whole lives into it.”
So has some of the staff, who’ve worked there for a decade or longer. And John’s three siblings worked there, too, despite not choosing it for careers.
“The Metzger family has been so happy and so proud to be in Ann Arbor all these years,” Walter said. “I can’t think of a better place to live than in Ann Arbor, Michigan, or to have a business and to raise our children.”
Now that the link to the family’s early days in the restaurant is returning to the Ann Arbor market, the Metzgers only have good wishes toward the future version of the Old German.
Walter says he looks forward to trying the German beer there. And he said the food always was good at the Old German, and he doesn’t expect that to change, since the original cookbook will be consulted.
Neither Walter nor John expresses concern about competition. They complemented each other in the early days, and the families took turns setting days off and serving holiday meals.
“We were sad when they closed,” John said. “It’ll be nice to have them back.”
The Old German will open in the lower level at 120 W. Washington this spring. Metzger’s will celebrate its 85th anniversary by year-end with an 85-percent discount for customers.