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Posted on Sun, Feb 3, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

Metzger's and the Old German: Tradition, family and renewal now unite them

By Paula Gardner

Once linked by family and heritage, soon Metzger’s and the Old German will be linked in spirit as longtime Ann Arbor restaurants that are adapting and creating new followings.

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.”

Paula Gardner is Community News Director of Reach her by email or follow her on Twitter.

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.



Mon, Feb 4, 2013 : 4:08 a.m.

If only Ted Heuzel was still here. That would make the world a much better place. R.I.P., Ted.

John Hritz

Mon, Feb 4, 2013 : 2:48 a.m.

One thing that I am missing from my recent trip to Berlin is German breakfast with Brotchen. It would cool if one of our revived restaurants would offer a German brunch. Looking forward to the return of the Old German.


Sun, Feb 3, 2013 : 9:55 p.m.

Every time I come back to Ann Arbor I always go out to Metzger's : the home of so many happy memories at both the old and new locations.

William Rude

Sun, Feb 3, 2013 : 8:02 p.m.

This is great news! I hope you will also bring back the wonder German Meat-patties!


Sun, Feb 3, 2013 : 5:08 p.m.

I've been dining at Metzger's with family & friends for almost 50 years-- so many happy memories over plates of schnitzel & sauerkraut. Danke, Metzger's-- a great family restaurant-- it wouldn't be Ann Arbor without you.


Sun, Feb 3, 2013 : 5:05 p.m.

Wish the new place well. Love Metzger's and love their convenient location.

Paula Gardner

Sun, Feb 3, 2013 : 4:48 p.m.

I really enjoyed talking to John and Walter. They spoke with so much joy over their regular customers. It reminded me of when my husband and I took our toddlers to eat there and their staff made the experience so pleasant. I also didn't realize how much of the decor had been moved from the old restaurant.


Sun, Feb 3, 2013 : 3:58 p.m.

I love Metzger's! Thank you for the article! I went to Metzger's regularly with my family in the 80's and 90's, and we still visit the Zeeb location. Simply a great Ann Arbor treasure that I hope is always around. I look forward to trying the "new" Old German, as well.

Linda Peck

Sun, Feb 3, 2013 : 3:14 p.m.

Thank you for this article about the Old German and Metzger's. They are part of my family's memories, too, and still area. I will look forward to the new Old German. Blessings to the Metzger extended family.

Dog Guy

Sun, Feb 3, 2013 : 2:31 p.m.

In the 1930's during 18 months of a 9-month stenographic course at Cleary College, my dad worked at Fritz Metzger's diner in Ypsilanti because Fritz paid in cash, rather than in meals, and Dad's car needed fuel. I drive to Zeeb Road rather than to downtown Ann Arbor for the finest sauerbraten and latke because parking is assured, close, and free.


Sun, Feb 3, 2013 : 2:14 p.m.

Thank you for this marvelous story bringing back great memories of the Old German, Metzers (while downtwon Ann Arbor and thankfully now on Zeeb Rd), and Deluxe Bakery. Three of my favorites places. Best wishes to all.


Sun, Feb 3, 2013 : noon

Metzger's and Weber's are two of my favorite AA restaurants. I cannot wait to try the Old German once it (re)opens.